Throughout history, there have been a number of public health issues facing society. Even though advances in technology and healthcare have helped the majority of people have access to quality care, there are many issues that still plague us.
Here, you’ll learn about three of the most common public health issues and the risks associated with each. Plus, discover how obesity has become more prevalent in the United States and ways you can avoid putting on the pounds.
3 Public Health Issues in the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases the Prevention Status Reports (PSR) every year that highlights the status of public health policies designed to address important public health issues, which include:
- Alcohol-related harms
- Food safety
- Healthcare-associated infections
- Heart disease and stroke
- Motor vehicle injury
- Nutrition, physical activity, and obesity
- Prescription drug overdose
- Teen pregnancy
- Tobacco use
American Public Health Association (APHA)
The American Public Health Association, or APHA, champions the health of all people and communities by strengthening the public health profession and by speaking out for public health issues and policies backed by science.
In addition to the issues mentioned above that the CDC recognizes, the APHA also deals with:
- Climate change
- Environmental health
- Gun violence
- Health equity
- Health reform
#1: Tobacco Use
Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States and kills more than 480,000 Americans ever year. This includes 41,000 deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke.
Smoking-related illnesses in the U.S. costs more than $300 billion a year when you combine direct medical care for adults ($170 billion) and lost productivity ($156 billion). Yet, in 2016 there were still an estimated 37.8 million, or 15.5% of U.S. adults who were current cigarette smokers.
Risks of Smoking Cigarettes
Among some of the many health risks of smoking, the most prevalent are:
- Smokers are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer than nonsmokers
- Smokers have a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases
- Smoking can cause lung disease by damaging airways and the small air sacs in your lungs
- Smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in your body
One of the issues currently facing our society is the legitimacy of vaccines. Both the CDC and the APHA actively support all children getting vaccines to improve the health of our children and our society as a whole.
As with all drugs, there are side effects. However, the most common side effects are mild, such as redness and swelling where the shot was given, and go away within a few days.
More serious side effects, such as severe allergic reactions, are very rare and doctors and clinic staff are trained to deal with them.
Risks of Not Getting Vaccinated
There are many examples about the benefits of vaccines, including the 2014 outbreak of West Nile virus, which caused thousands of people to become very sick and led to more than 9,000 deaths because there was no vaccine available.
However, one of the best examples of the benefits of vaccines is measles. Consider, in the decade before 1963 (when the measles vaccine became available):
- Nearly all children got measles by the time there were 15
- 4 million people were infected every year
- 400-500 people died from measles every year
- 48,000 hospitalizations due to measles every year
- 4,000 people suffered from encephalitis, or swelling of the brain
Now, two doses of the measles vaccine is 97% effective at preventing measles if someone is exposed to the virus.
#3: Health Equity
One of the core values of the APHA is creating health equity, or the ability for everyone to have the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.
While this may seem like an easy goal, inequities are everywhere, especially in poor communities, which have barriers to prevent individuals from accessing information and care to reach their full potential. In order to combat inequities, the APHA values all people equally to:
- Optimize conditions where people live
- Work with other sectors to improve employment, housing, education, health care, public safety, and food care
Effects of Health Inequities
Poorer communities are more likely to face a number of health issues compared with wealthier and middle class communities for a number of reasons, which include a lack of information, marketing unhealthy products directly to those communities, and the fact that unhealthy foods are cheaper than healthy foods.
In fact, statistics show that:
- Low-income individuals are far more likely to be obese than higher-income individuals
- 27.4% of children living in households below the poverty level were obese
- 34% of those with less than a high school education were obese
- More than a quarter of people living below the poverty line smoke
- Nearly 32% of adults without a high school diploma smoke
- Just 22 to 42% of low-income adults 50 or older received recommended preventative care
These issues, plus many others, are the reasons why the APHA places so much emphasis on creating more opportunities for lower-income communities to have access to better healthcare and more information about healthier living.
Obesity as a Financial Issue
The obesity crisis costs the United States more than $150 billion in healthcare costs annually and billions more due to lost productivity.
What Is Considered Obese?
Obesity, currently one of the important public health issues, is defined as an amount of body fat that exceeds the level generally considered healthy for a particular height. Body mass index (BMI), an inexpensive and easy to calculate method, is typically used as a proxy.
For adults, the following weight classifications are associated with specific BMI levels:
- Below 18.5 = Underweight
- 18.5 – 24.9 = Normal weight
- 25.0 – 29.9 = Overweight
- 30.0 – 39.9 = Obese
- 40.0+ = Class 3 obese (also referred to as severe obesity or morbid obesity)
Because children ages 2-19 are continuously growing, the chart uses BMI percentiles to determine obesity, which is as follows:
- Below 5th percentile = Underweight
- 5th to 84.9th percentile = Normal weight
- 85th to 94.9th percentile = Overweight
- 95th percentile = Obese
How Many Americans Are Obese?
Using BMI, the CDC reported that in 2015-16 the obesity rates were:
- 39.8% in adults
- 18.5% in youth
According to the same study, the rates of obesity were higher among middle-aged adults (42.8%) than among younger adults (35.7%).
Obesity Rates by State
According to the State of Obesity, an annual report that has been published for the past 14 years (formerly call F as in Fat), the most obese rates by state are listed below by percentage of obese adults from highest to lowest.
% of Obese Adults
District of Columbia
You may notice that none of the states listed have an obesity rate that matches the national average. How is this possible? According to The State of Obesity 2017 study, it’s because the people do not always accurately report their height and weight.
State obesity rates are collected by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which relies on self-reported height and weight. On the other hand, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is where the national obesity rate is derived, is calculated based on physical examinations of respondents.
Therefore, the NHANES is likely a more accurate reflection of the true obesity rates in the country.
Why Are Americans Fat?
Over the years, there have been plenty of disagreements about what exactly is making Americans fat. Some argue that the low-fat diet recommended by the U.S. government in 1980 led us to eat more processed carbohydrates. Others claim that it’s the fact that many foods that are bad for us taste good, such as fast food, desserts, and soda.
Either way, there’s one undeniable truth over the last 25 years: food portions have doubled, and sometimes tripled, at America’s restaurant.
For example, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, if you were to eat in today’s portions:
- Breakfast: bagel and 16-ounce coffee with milk and sugar
- Lunch: two pieces of pepperoni pizza and a 20-ounce soda
- Dinner: chicken Caesar and a 20-ounce soda
With this diet, you would consume 1,595 more calories than if you had the same foods at typical portions served 25 years ago. Over the course of one year, the larger portions could amount to more than 500,000 more calories.
These added calories, combined with the increased intake of unhealthy fats, grains, and sugars, have led to meals that are larger and unhealthier than they were in 1970s. In fact, our body can only store so much glucose (the breakdown products of carbohydrates) as energy, then the rest is stored in the liver and fat cells in an unhealthy manner.
Defined as a type of lifestyle with little or no physical activity, a sedentary lifestyle includes:
- Computer use
- Watching television
- Office work
- Cell phone use
Over the years, our bodies have evolved to move. The more time we spend sitting still can cause our bones can lose their strength and our basal metabolic rate suffers.
A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk for:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Certain cancers
Plus, it also puts a person at risk of anxiety and depression. You can reduce your risk of these health problems through daily exercise.
Obesity by Race
The overall prevalence of obesity was higher among non-Hispanic black and Hispanic adults than among non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic Asian adults. The same pattern was seen among youth.i
Risks of Obesity
Obesity has been proven to lead to increased risks of:
- Heart disease and stroke
- High blood pressure (Hypertension)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Some cancers
- Gallbladder disease and gallstones
- Sleep apnea and breathing problems
Keep in mind that not all people who are obese experience all of these problems. Your family history, race, and other factors can increase or decrease your risks for any of these conditions. Have regular checkups with your family doctor to learn your greatest health risks.ii
How to Avoid Obesity
Between our inactive lifestyle and wide array of delicious, unhealthy food options, it’s easy to see why so many Americans are obese. However, there are some ways to avoid the epidemic:
- Eat five to six servings of fruit and vegetables daily
- Choose whole grain foods, such as brown rice and whole wheat bread
- Avoid highly processed foods with refined white sugar, flour, and saturated fat
- Weigh yourself regularly
- Avoid high “energy density” foods
- Do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days
Another important aspect is to keep track of your caloric intake. Eating more calories than you burn will lead to weight gain. Therefore, portion control and exercise are the two keys to avoiding obesity.
3 Master of Public Health Programs
If you’re interested in raising awareness of obesity, and creating plans to combat other public health issues in your community on a local, national, and even international level, a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree may be for you.
The curriculum of these programs analyzes topics in:
- Environmental health
- Community health
- Public policy
Usually, these programs also require you to complete hands-on clinical or practicum requirements through local health agencies associated with the school you choose. Some of the MPH options are:
Check out the list below for three schools that offer an MPH degree.
The Gillings School of Global Public Health offers a Master of Public Health (MPH) strives to teach the detection, understanding, and ability to provide solutions to complex public health problems by leveraging interprofessional teams.
The core MPH curriculum includes five courses:
- Understanding Public Health Issues
- Methods and Measures
- Data Analysis for Public Health
- Conceptualizing Public Health Solutions
- Developing, Implementing, and Evaluating Public Health Solutions
Your coursework includes analyzing case studies, as well as working with practitioners and alumni to complete integrative, individual and team projects.
The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University is committed to advance the health of the populations of our local, national, and global communities by providing the best public health educational experience.
The school offers a variety of master’s degrees in public health including:
These programs have the same curriculum only delivered in a different format and allow you the option of customizing your curriculum to fit your interests and career aspirations.
The Master of Public Health at Simmons College is designed to prepare you to address health inequity and positively impact public health at the local, national, and global levels by exploring topics in:
- Health Policy/ Health Services
- Environmental Health
- Social / Behavioral Health
In addition, the practice-based curriculum incorporates courses designed to develop your leadership and advocacy skills. After earning your degree, you’ll have a portfolio that demonstrates your ability to create, implement, and evaluate projects, programs, and campaigns.
[i] cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db288.htm [ii] cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/index.html