Popular smallpox poster used in health campaigns Photo credit: Center for Disease Control

The burdens of disease, and death

by Helen Holter

In my lifetime a handful of diseases have been eradicated – like smallpox – or tamed a bit – like HIV/AIDS.  I grew up wanting to believe that hope was part of the methodology in scientific research, hope part of the prescription in healing.


Popular smallpox poster used in health campaigns Photo credit: Center for Disease Control

Popular smallpox poster used in health campaigns
Photo credit: Center for Disease Control

Crunching Global Health Numbers

In Seattle, our global health experts just published a massive world-wide study, with research findings on the latest global causes of death and disability – the DALYs – in developed (rich) and in developing (poor) countries.  There’s hope, perhaps–but a bit of kick-in-the-pants reality as well.  It’s called metrics — visualized metrics.  It grabs you, this global-health eye candy screaming “Pay attention to this!”

These findings and visualized metrics are from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation (IHME), with funding from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  IHME’s Global Health Burden of Disease Study is a five-year study in 50 countries by 500 researchers.  Predictably, HIV/AIDS, infant illnesses, and infectious diseases loom largest in developing countries, while richer countries like the U.S. are faced with growing threats of noncommunicable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and drug/drink disorders.

Remembering Alzheimer’s

The Alzheimer’s news is most troubling to me — not because it’s rampant among my relatives, but because I’ve often witnessed the living-dead destruction it wreaks on patients as well as their families, including early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in a young former KIRO-TV colleague here in Seattle.

Five million and rising: Americans with Alzheimer's disease Photo credit: On Being/Creative CommonsOne of my first jobs was as a nurse’s aide at age 18 in a county-run rundown hospital –  the highest-paying work for a girl I could find in my Wisconsin town.  (The work was brutally demanding, but that’s how much I wanted to go to college.) One of my duties was watching people die and then cleaning their bodies for the morgue.  As depressing as that sounds, what disturbed me more was strapping aging patients into adult high chairs where they sat all day long lined up in the hallway drooling, their minds dying a slow death with Alzheimer’s plaques and fibers twisting their brains: no therapy, no assistance, simply left to babble until their last breath.

A decade later when I worked in TV news covering medical/health stories, I found a young 32-year-old mother and wife trying to juggle the needs of her family and newborn baby with the needs of her wheelchair-bound, nearly catatonic father, dying at age 54 of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  She cradled her infant’s head in hope, her father’s head in despair…  He died not long after after our interview.

 Making Change

I still hold hope that, although we in the U.S. are dying more from noncommunicable diseases such as Alzheimer’s, there is so much we can easily change in our lifestyles to help ward off preventable risks for diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, and even that dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.  If simple lifestyle warnings to take action don’t do the trick – exercise, healthy weight, clean eating, and no smoking – then perhaps those entertaining yet sobering IHME visualized metrics will shock us into action, these global health sentinels warning us of the burdens of disease, and death.Signature_80

Recommended: Global Health Lessons (my other web site);  “Jan’s Story: Love Lost to the Long Goodbye of Alzheimer’s by Barry Peterson. (Jan was my KIRO-TV colleague who recently died; Barry was her husband and a CBS News correspondent.)

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