Lifestyle Diseases and Personal Finance

If you watch the news or read many magazines or newspapers, you’ve probably heard about “lifestyle diseases.” These are diseases and ailments that we get because our lifestyle and/or environment are unhealthy. Some examples:

  • Obesity
  • Alcoholism
  • Diseases associated with smoking such as lung cancer, asthma or emphysema
  • Drug abuse
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Some forms of cancer related to diet, sun exposure, or other lifestyle factors
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes

As with any medical problem, the cause is not always only your lifestyle or environment, but for certain diseases lifestyle has been proven to be a big contributing factor. And in cases where your lifestyle is the cause, correcting the lifestyle can cure, or at least improve, your condition. This means that a lot of your health is under your control. So what does this have to do with personal finance? A lot.

Lifestyle diseases are expensive to come down with and to live with. They have a lot of costs that more people don’t even think about. Not only do you have to pay the increased health care and pharmaceutical costs, there are often other costs associated with having a lifestyle that is out of whack and leading to disease. Here are some examples of the hidden costs of lifestyle diseases.

  • Once you are diagnosed with a lifestyle disease, health and life insurance become very expensive (if not impossible) to acquire. Without health insurance, your financial troubles will mount very quickly as your disease progresses.
  • If you are obese, you face many hidden costs. You probably pay more for food. Plus-size clothing is often more expensive than standard sizes. Travel costs are higher if you have to buy two seats. Your fuel costs are higher because your car has to work harder to haul the weight. And your car will likely need more repairs because the engine and suspension are always under strain.
  • If you smoke, you have to pay for the cigarettes (and the insane taxes associated with them). You might have to pay for special clothing or upholstery cleaning to remove the smell. Unless you like yellow tinted walls, you probably paint more often.
  • If you drink, liquor itself is expensive. Drink so much that you miss work, you don’t get paid. Drink even more and you’ll get fired because you miss work too often. Drink and drive and kill someone and the lawsuits will bury you. Same with drugs.
  • If you are constantly under stress, not only are you flirting with a heart attack, stroke or depression, you’re probably also eating out more and shopping more to cope with your stress. Retail therapy is expensive.
  • Colon cancer and heart disease are often found in people who eat a lot of fatty, high calorie, and over processed foods. And these foods are more expensive than their fresher, less process counterparts.
  • Any lifestyle disease can cost you in terms of productivity and time. You have less energy and ability to get things done and you may miss work more often, leading to missed paychecks or missed income opportunities.

And the even worse news is that one lifestyle disease easily leads to another. Once you have one, you’re well on the road to having more. You’re obese so you get depressed. You get depressed and your risk of heart disease goes up. You’re stressed out so you smoke or drink to calm yourself. You’re stressed out so you eat out a lot to save time. Then before you know it you’re obese from all the calories. Then you’re headed for a heart attack. It can become a never ending cycle of disease and expenses.

Once you have a lifestyle disease, you spend more and more to make yourself feel better, too. Self-medication can be just as expensive as medical costs. You may engage in a lot of retail therapy, pay for experimental treatments, try special gizmos and gadgets designed to alleviate the condition, and so on. The more lifestyle diseases you come down with, the more expenses you incur. Even if you have great insurance that pays for all of your health care, the associated hidden costs can drain your finances. You can go bankrupt paying for diseases that were preventable. Most people just shrug and say, “Well, that’s just what it costs to live,” and don’t make the association between their poor finances and the lifestyle diseases that are plaguing them.

So what’s the answer? Make the connection between your lifestyle disease and your financial problems. Prevent the disease (or reverse the course) and save yourself the extra costs. Obviously if it were so easy to lose weight, stop smoking or drinking, relives stress and be healthy, I wouldn’t even have to write this piece. We’d all be super healthy. But sometimes a financial motivation is a more powerful force for change than anything else. I know a woman who wanted to lose weight in the worst way. She was about 200 pounds overweight and miserable. She was tired all the time, got sick easily, had high blood pressure and her joints hurt. She’d tried every diet known to man and had failed at them all. She was about to give in and pay (by raiding her 401K) for gastric bypass surgery. While the surgery might have cured her problem, it would have left her at forty-nine years old with nothing saved for retirement. She asked me what she should do. She didn’t want to be broke, but she didn’t want to be fat anymore, either.

I asked her how much her lifestyle was costing her. She looked at me like I was nuts and then handed me a stack of medical bills. I told her that was certainly a lot of money, but what about other costs? I got her thinking about her food bills, her clothing costs, retail therapy (money spent avoiding the truth), her travel costs, and other more intangible costs such as lost productivity (she was self-employed, so every minute away from her business was lost income). She thought about it for a week and then came back to me with a number. Based on her own estimate, being obese was costing her (not counting medical care) about $20,000 per year in other costs. Add in health care, co-pays, diet aids, unused gym memberships, and medication for the associated joint pain, fatigue, and high cholesterol and the total ballooned to about $40,000 per year. Not coincidentally, she had about $45,000 in debt. Hmmm.

She got mad. And then she got furious. For a couple of weeks she wasn’t without her calculator and notepad. She tallied everything she spent on her “condition” and then planned ways to stop. She purged her pantry and bought only healthy, less processed foods. She ate at home almost every meal. She cancelled the gym she wasn’t using and started walking outside. She got smaller every time I saw her. She was never without her notepad and calculator, constantly tabulating the costs of her condition and the savings she was reaping as her condition improved. As she lost weight, she plowed her savings into various investment vehicles.

I asked her what happened. What was finally the last straw? She said, “I can’t believe how much money I was just wasting. And I was wasting it on something I could prevent. I didn’t have to lose all the money I did. I could have lost weight sooner and saved myself a ton of money. I assumed that life was just expensive, but I was making it expensive.”

Today (about two years later) she’s a healthy weight and out of debt. It wasn’t easy, but the financial losses were the motivating factor she needed to improve her lifestyle and cure her “disease.” Calculating the financial damage of your lifestyle disease might be the kick in the pants you need to quit smoking, stop drinking, lose weight, manage your stress, and start taking better care of yourself.

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20 Responses to Lifestyle Diseases and Personal Finance

  1. This is a very well written post. I had never heard of the term “lifestyle diseases” before.

    I’ve always thought it should be simple to correct those kinds of behaviors, but as someone who struggled with obesity as a teenager I must admit is not always that easy.

    I hope there is more research going into studying lifestyle diseases, ad they are contributing more and more to the serious health problems that develop down the road.

  2. Princessperky says:

    Congrats to your friend!

  3. lizajane says:

    Interesting motivational technique. Yesterday’s tally for me/DH:
    $28 for tobacco
    $5 for Dairy Queen & McDonalds
    $4 for Rx for DH…his one is debatable, but if he were in better health I belive he could have fought off the infection requiring antibiotics.
    $5 for diet coke

    Every day isn’t like that, of course, but even if it’s just $42 per week, that’s $2,184 per year.

  4. Diane says:

    Very interesting post. I was aware of the fact that certain health issues are related to behavior, but not familiar with the term ‘lifestyle diseases’.

    I had not thought through all the hidden costs associated with these health conditions.

    I consider myself blessed to live a healthy lifestyle, as I have genetic health problems in my background, which are beyond my control. I maintain a normal weight by eating healthy and walking several times a week & I am lifetime non-smoker & very light drinker.

    If someone can improve their health by using financial savings as a motivator to change their behavior that is wonderful. Unfortunately, these diseases are harder to improve than to prevent, so it is really important to get this across to people early in their lives.

    Education of young people is really important. It always distresses me to see teenagers & 20 somethings smoking & living on fast food… not to mention drinking to excess.

  5. Jaynee Sasso says:

    I really enjoyed your post. As a financial life coach I really work hard to get people to take better care of themselves in an effort to save them money.

    Many clients have said that they can’t afford to eat right or get good healthcare. However, they can’t afford not to. It’s cheaper to pay now than later. I encourage people to make an investment in themselves.

  6. Maismom says:

    One of my DH’s friends used to be overweight and had several medical problems. As a result, he was taking 4 or 5 different types of of medicine.

    One day, he decided to lose weight, and guess what? After he lost unnecessary weight, his medical conditions were gone, too. No more medicine necessary. His story just amazed us. I wonder how many people are out there suffering form medical medical problems that are caused by being overweight.

  7. China Brooks says:

    Jennifer, you are really doing a great job.

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  9. psychsarah says:

    While I agree with the spirit of your post, that incorporating healthy physical behaviours can be related to healthy financial behaviours and vice versa, I think you’ve oversimplified many of the complex issues at hand, and depended upon the oft used myths perpetuated by media-that its your own fault if you get sick because you should have done something about it. While I’m a big advocate for personal responsibility, there are genetic loadings and sociocultural factors taht cannot be ignored in issues like “lifestyle diseases” (a term I take exception to also for the aforementioned reasons).

  10. Hilary says:

    This post provoked an interesting split reaction in me:

    On the one hand, I am obese and agree with your analysis of the costs of being so overweight and the fact that control over this condition lies with *me*.

    At the same time: I have battled depression for years. Spent thousands of dollars on medication, therapy, and even (for one miserable week) hospitalization. I don’t think depression can be lumped in easily with “lifestyle diseases.” Certainly shorter-term situational depression can be greatly improved by taking action. As for deep-rooted, genetic (?) depression . . . it can be managed (often expensively) but I don’t feel it is nearly as much under the patient’s control. Knowing how much depression costs me depresses me further, actually. . . . *sigh*

    All of that being said, this article was thought-provoking and I appreciated the concrete example you gave regarding obesity. Thanks for making me think!

  11. Molly says:

    I would like to point out that not all of these are preventable, but they may be treatable. For instance, depression runs in my family, and I was unlucky enough to get it.

    Not treating it is more expensive – lost work, lost motivation, lower quality of life, etc. Treating it, while not cheap (therapy, doctor visits, medication), enables me to continue to work and enjoy life.

    So while I understand and respect the thoughts represented in this post, weighing the cost and benefits of treating/not treating should also be considered. Thanks!

  12. Jade says:

    First off, I think 90% of your post was great. But it was this one part that has really ticked me off…

    Depression/anxiety a lifestyle disease? Sorry, but I was eating healthy, in pretty good shape from figure skating competitively, getting plenty of sleep, I didn’t drink, and I’m the only person in my family to have never even tried smoking or drugs, and yet when I was 18 I ended up getting hit with depression so debilitating I’d have days where I couldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes mental illness (not a lifestyle disease) will pop up out of the blue (or get worse, as was my case, my depression was manageable up until then) in the late teens/early twenties, as was my case. I spent years in therapy and now am even more anal about eating right, sleeping enough, and exercising every day, I limit myself to one drink a month (now that I’m legal), along with taking St. John’s Wort. It’s cheaper than Prozac, and with fewer side effects. The depression is still there, but at least I’m not suicidal all the time anymore. I suppose if I just got off my lazy butt and did…. (did what? What am I not already doing?) This would all go away and I’d be cured of this “lifestyle disease”. I guess I’m not motivated enough, or it’s just all in my head and I need to snap out of this so I can save $15/month on St. John’s Wort…

    Mild or situational depression maybe can be cured and prevented through lifestyle, but it’s not mild or situational for all of us. I’m really not sure what other lifestyle changes I was supposed to make to avoid the hell I went through and the therapy bills that came with it. So please don’t imply that a serious mental illness with a lot of genetic causes is a “lifestyle disease” that we can just get off our lazy butts and fix.

  13. Amy says:

    To me, this all gets at the larger issues of our society. We may not want government involvement in policing the foods provided to us or what choices we can make, but the simple fact is that American (let’s even say Western) life promotes all the junk that leads to these issues.

    It takes personal responsibility and effort (and courage!) to overcome consumerism, entitlement/instant gratification mindsets, fast food convenience, oversized restaurant portions, meat in every meal, and the sheer subsidizing of our entire food supply by the industries that sell it to us. The politics behind why kids get milk in school (as healthy as you think?) or why corn syrup is in the majority of food products make it difficult for us to live healthy lives.

    Not only that, but we don’t realize it because everyone else does it. Now you have social pressure: want to eat healthy? Good luck going out with your friends/family to most restaurants. Want to breathe clean air? Forget going to a bar with your friends. Want to walk or bike to work, school, grocery store? Good luck w/o sidewalks or bike lanes, and the suburbanization of our culture which tells us to get a new car and drive everywhere, leading to even worse health from inactivity.

    It takes courage to find a simpler place, to discover that it’s not better to have the newest toy or a freezer full of TV dinners because we’re ‘too busy’ to cook from scratch. I feel most people don’t even know they’re missing out by buying in to our culture.

    One other note: HRAs/HSAs are designed on this principle of personal responsibility for our health. At least that’s the line they give us, but the health care system is so broken we can’t afford the fuller coverage everyone used to get from employers. I recently moved to such insurance plans and am amazed at how much I’m told “research your hospital/doctor/procedure to save money” but really don’t have tools to learn more about my own health in the process. Personal responsibility for health is much more than the cheapest dentist–it’s learning to live differently.

  14. Abigail says:

    Okay, I understand your basic point: Being sick is expensive. It’s actually a good chunk of what I write about on my blog, since both my husband and I have chronic conditions and are currently living on $3100/month.

    But I really have to take umbrage at the fact that you group things like depression in with smoking. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t *imagine* now hard it must be to quit nicotine. It’s a part of your life, ingrained into your everyday activities until you can’t do those things without a cigarette. But do you realize that you are equating an illness that can be utterly organic in with an acquired behavior?!

    The way this post comes off, and I doubt this was actually your intent, you’re saying that depression can just be “gotten over” like being obese. In some circumstances, depression is situational. Such as if you have low self-esteem/depression because you’re overweight (though some would wonder if actually the depression caused the overeating which caused the weight gain).

    But there are people out there, like myself, who have depression run in their family. I am in therapy, I take medication so that I am not curled up every day in the fetal position because the world is too much to deal with and I just want it to go away.

    And depression isn’t something that you can just will away because it’s costing you money. You can’t take out your calculator, figure out what it’s costing and decide to start eating better and exercise. The cure for obesity is a long, arduous one and congratulations are more than due to anyone who has conquered it. But depression is not smoking. It is not drinking — though at least alcoholism is a genetic predisposition. It is not something you can quit with a support group and a patch, or a membership to a gym and grim determination.

    And I have never heard of asthma being associated with smoking. As the wife of an asthmatic and the daughter of another, I can tell you it exacerbated by smoking. But asthma is a disease, just like depression is a disease. You can do things to ameliorate the effects of asthma: quite smoking, be active, be fit. But otherwise it is a condition you will always have.

    Like Sarah, I take exception to the fact that you have the gall to call depression or asthma a “lifestyle disease.” These are not things you choose. They are handed to you. And let me remind you that plenty of people who don’t smoke a day in their life get cancer, which is another “lifestyle disease” according to you.

    Like I said, you probably just didn’t think about some of these implications as you wrote this. Healthy people rarely do. To you, perhaps alcoholism and depression seem to be on the same level. They aren’t. And terms like “lifestyle disease” come off as judgmental and condescending. As though depressed people (like me) can opt out of it with some lifestyle changes. Situational depression is curable, such as when a loved one dies. It’s not forever. But trust me when I say that I would give up almost everything to be able to function in the world off of my medication. Instead, I sit around, feeling overwhelmed and then crying because I can’t do anything. So it’s pretty infuriating to be lumped in as having a “lifestyle disease.” I’m guessing what you meant was a disease that affects your lifestyle or is a part of your lifestyle. But being a depressive isn’t a lifestyle. It’s a trait I have, like brown eyes or being good at math.

    When you’re depressed, you feel ashamed and alone — and ridiculous for not being able to cope the way everyone else seems to. So it’s very hard to accept that depression isn’t a stigma, it isn’t something that is shameful. It is just a condition you have that makes you function differently from others. Like people who are terrible at math but write like William Faulkner. They may never be able to balance their checkbooks but they’ll craft the next great American novel. Do *they* have a lifestyle disease? No. It’s just part of who they are.

    But as a depressive it’s so hard to do anything except blame yourself and tell yourself it’s some personal failing that you can’t just pick yourself up and get into life… It took years. And I still slip back into it pretty easily. My husband has to talk me down when it happens.

    So for you to lump it in together with things like smoking… It’s hurtful and a major oversight. And it doesn’t necessarily matter whether you meant it. As I said, few people who make these kinds of statements *mean* anything by it. But the damage is done all the same.

    Severe depression is a disability. It’s classified as such by most every organization there is. So unless you plan to add “paraplegic” and “deaf” to your lifestyle diseases, I would seriously reconsider some of what you wrote here.

  15. Diane says:

    Obviously not ALL forms of every disease mentioned are caused by lifestyle, but some are.

    The ones that are lifestyle-induced can be improved by a change in behavior, but not every case can be managed that way.

    Diabetes for instance – Type 2 might be considered a lifestyle issue – as being overweight is a major cause and that can be improved & sometimes managed by diet and exercise alone.

    My father had Type 1 (aka Juvenile) diabetes from childhood. He was not overweight and he had to take medication to manage it.

    Chronic, major depression has a genetic factor, it is not the same as situational depression, which I suffered during my divorce and early days as a single parent, but eventually overcame.

    Some depression/anxiety is likely lifestyle induced – such as that created by financial stress due to poor financial decisions and spending more than you make.

    As for asthma and smoking, asthma is not CAUSED by smoking, but it is certainly made worse by exposure to cigarette smoke. When my son was in the hospital for heart surgery, the nurses there told me that 90% of the hospitalizations of children on our floor were related to the parents’ smoking. I believe that to be true, as the main topic of conversation among the parents was where you could go nearby to purchase cigarettes! Not the kids’ choice, but they obviously suffered for their parents’ lifestyle choices.

    There is no point in blaming people for illnesses they have no control over, and I don’t think that’s the point here. This post is about the fact that some illnesses can be helped & managed by behavior and lifestyle changes.

    In the end, we’re all responsible for ourselves and our choices. If we can control some illnesses by improving our health through better choices it will obviously save us money.

    If our health problems are beyond control by lifestyle changes, then we have no choice but to deal with the disease on those terms.

  16. AnnJo says:

    The reaction to including depression/anxiety as a lifestyle disease is interesting to me. Some commenters note that you can’t just “decide to be better” when it comes to depression and anxiety.

    But how do we know?

    If a long-time smoker decides to quit smoking and succeeds, nobody claims she hadn’t really been a smoker. But if a long-time depressive decides to adopt a different outlook on life and with effort and determination does so, overcoming her depression along the way, I suppose the claim would be made that she hadn’t really been a depressive?

    Having been a smoker and a depressive, it has seemed to me that determination and commitment DO have a great deal to do with overcoming both these problems, and that indeed both can be overcome in much the same way.

    I’m not saying that this would work for everyone or even maybe for most people, but surely it does work for some. So why the hostility to the very idea?

  17. Abigail says:

    The hostility to the idea, AnnJo, comes from the fact that depression is a disability. Would you tell a paraplegic to think happy thoughts and he or she will walk again? How about a deaf person? Or a blind person?

    That said, you are correct that mindset does matter. It matters when you quit smoking, when you fight for weight loss, when you fight to survive cancer and when you work through depression.

    But outlook won’t simply make things better. And depression makes activities such as exercise (as you must know if you’ve experienced it) infinitely more difficult. (Well, not infinitely, but I couldn’t decide on a proper number. So hopefully you get the general idea.)

    But if you are a “former” depressive than I’m guessing one of two things is going on. 1) You’re still depressed and in deep, deep denial — which I doubt and sincerely hope is not true. Or 2) You had situational depression, not genetic. In which case, good! Congrats! You’ve been through some horrible times and come out the other end.

    Some of us may not have that option. I try to stay as positive as I can. I know that I can work on my depression and make small changes through a lot of therapy and soul searching. But it’s been confirmed from a few sources that it’s likely I’ll always be a depressive. So I have to face the possibility that I may never be functional off the medication.

    I certainly hope I do. I haven’t ruled it out. But I’m not trying to give myself a hard date that I have to be better by. Because I tried that in the past. And it just led to feeling even worse, when I realized the process is complex and can’t be on any given timeline.

    So I suppose most of the posters who, like me, objected to just, as you put it, “deciding to get better” did so because it implies that this is the only step necessary. It implies, quite vividly really, that those of us who haven’t gotten better are simply lacking the will and the positive outlook.

    I have to say that my outlook is about 1000 times more positive now than back when I started therapy. And at least 100 times more positive than when I restarted therapy after a too-long hiatus (caused by no insurance and no viable means of transportation, given other health conditions).

    And while, yes, this blogger has every right to post whatever he wants on his blog, I did think the generally assumed taste standard was to write so authoritatively about what you know or what you have researched. I guess blogs don’t necessarily have the same standards (journalist parents have skewed me a bit for this internet world). But if you’re going to make pronouncements on high about how to fix conditions, I would hope you have either researched them (preferably with a medical degree or personal experience, but not limited to) or are otherwise knowledgeable.

    For example, I would never in a million years try to give someone advice to quit smoking. I could tell them how others I knew found success. But I couldn’t speak about what does and doesn’t work on the whole. Or how they can wean themselves off. I’d leave that to professionals or to people who have gone through it themselves.

    All that said, since you have, in fact, been a depressive and are clearly interested in personal finance, you’re welcome to do a guest post on my blog if you like about your experience with depression or some other health condition and how your own positive thinking affected the outcome. My blog focuses on disability/low income life with an eye towards personal finance/debt reduction… And while we clearly don’t agree on some facts, I do like to hear about others’ experiences.

    You can click on the link, I believe, to be connected to my blog and leave me a message that way. (I approve all comments, so it won’t be made public unless you want it to be.)

  18. Caroline says:

    Parts of your article are just plain irresponsible and untrue. Loads of research indicates that depression/anxiety are not necessarily caused by an unhealty lifestyle or environment, and that asthma is not caused by smoking.

    I have asthma and have never smoked in my life.

    I’ve been fortunate to never suffer from depression, but others close to me have and I can assure you it had nothing to do with them leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

    Did you even research any of this before you published it?

  19. AnnJo says:

    @Abigail, thanks for the kind offer but I don’t have enough to say on the subject to fill up a whole post. Just this:

    To quit smoking, put out your cigarette. As long as you don’t light another, you’re a non-smoker. That’s how I did it 32 years ago.

    A depressive in “deep, deep denial” is another term for . . . a happy person!

    In my experience, the hardest thing about making lifestyle and/or belief changes is deciding to do so, which means abandoning all the ideas you may hold about why you can’t, shouldn’t, don’t want to. Once the decision is made, the rest is not that hard. YMMV.


  20. Purpleskyz says:

    Wow! I just love this article. Now, I’m motivated!

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