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Study Finds Illness, Medical Bills Cause Majority of U.S. Bankruptcies

by S. L. Baker

(NaturalNews) Unemployment is high and retirement accounts have virtually disappeared for many folks in the wake of the current recession. Housing prices have plummeted, too. So it comes as no surprise that data just released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts shows the total number of U.S. bankruptcies filed during the first three months of 2009 increased 34.5 percent over the same period in 2008. But what is surprising is a new Harvard study published in the August 2009 issue of The American Journal of Medicine which reveals financial woes starting hitting Americans even before the officially recognized economic downturn — and the main culprit was illness and medical bills.

The results of the first-ever national random-sample survey of bankruptcy filers, conducted by researchers at Cambridge Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School and Ohio University, show that in 2007, 60% of all bankruptcies in the United States were driven by sickness and related medical bills. Moreover, the share of bankruptcies attributable to medical woes over the past few years has been on the upswing.

The investigators surveyed a random national sample of 2,314 bankruptcy filers in 2007, studied their court records and then interviewed 1,032 of these financially strapped people. Bankruptcies were designated as "medical" based on the stated reasons a person had for filing, income loss due to sickness and the amount of their medical bills they owed. By relying on identical definitions in both 2001 and 2007, the researchers concluded that the share of bankruptcies caused by medical problems had soared by almost 50 percent during those years. In fact, the chances a bankruptcy had a medical cause were 2.38 fold higher in 2007 than in 2001.

The results of the research revealed that a variety of circumstances pushed many middle-class Americans over the edge into bankruptcy, even when they had health insurance. For example, 92 percent of the medically bankrupt ended up in that financial state due to high medical bills. And countless families who had health insurance were under-insured, leaving them responsible for thousands of dollars in medical bills they couldn't pay. In fact, out-of-pocket medical charges averaged just under $18,000 for those who had private insurance and yet went bankrupt due to medical expenses. Uninsured patients were faced with $26,971 in out-of-pocket expenses.

The study's authors point out that almost all insurance is linked to employment, so a medical illness can trigger both loss of a job and loss of health insurance coverage. Nationally, about a fourth of all companies cancel insurance coverage immediately when an employee suffers a disabling illness, and another 25 percent cancel insurance within a year. Of course, losing a job due to the recession also usually means losing health insurance coverage.

"The US health care financing system is broken, and not only for the poor and uninsured. Middle class families frequently collapse under the strain of a health care system that treats physical wounds, but often inflicts fiscal ones," researcher David U.Himmelstein, M.D., wrote in The American Journal of Medicine article.

The solution is found in your own choices, not some government program

Despite the gloom and doom financial news related to medical illness, there is reason to take heart. Bottom line: a change of attitude and a healthier lifestyle can lead to less disease and fewer medical bills — or no medical bills at all. In fact, an editorial previously published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that unhealthy eating habits and sedentary lifestyles represent the most common source of unnecessary death and disease among Americans. Bottom line: most disease is preventable by taking charge of the way you live and how you treat your own body, including what nutrients you put into it.

Unfortunately, according to another study published in the June edition of The American Journal of Medicine, Americans are not following a healthy lifestyle, despite the fact it can save their money and their life. What's more, the research reveals that there's actually a decline in healthy living, especially among people of middle age.

Investigators from the Department of Family Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston compared the results of two large studies of Americans conducted between the years of 1988 and 1994 and between 2001 and 2006. They found that during the intervening years, there was a substantial increase in the percentage of adults between the ages of 40 and 74 who decreased their physical activity level and also gained weight. The research subjects were drinking far more alcohol and eating fewer fruits and vegetables, too, as the years rolled by.

Overall, the number of people practicing healthy lifestyle habits had slipped from 15 percent to only eight percent. And the researchers also found that even having cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol (or risk factors for those conditions) didn't spur people to make healthy lifestyle choices.

"The potential public health benefits from promoting a healthier lifestyle at all ages, and especially ages 40 and 74 years, are substantial. Regular physical activity and a prudent diet can reduce the risk of premature death and disability from a variety of conditions including coronary heart disease, and are strongly related to the incidence of obesity," study author Dana E. King, MD, MS, stated in the article. "In the US, medical costs due to physical inactivity and its consequences are estimated at $76 billion in 2000 dollars. Research indicates that individuals are capable of adopting healthy habits in middle age, and making an impact on cardiovascular risk."

For those who want to make the effort, pursuing a healthy, natural, active lifestyle can reduce the risk of virtually all serious disease. As reported in Natural News(…), for instance, a previous Harvard study found that following a healthy lifestyle lowers the risk of coronary heart disease by 80 percent and the risk of diabetes by 90 percent. It may also prevent more than half of ischemic strokes.

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