West Virginians have known diabetes for a long time. Few families have not experienced the diagnosis. But what was until recently a grandparents disease is increasingly showing up in teens and young adults. Children are showing warning signs even earlier.
On the front page of this newspaper begins a careful look at the problem. "The Shape We're In" is a special project by staff writer Kate Long, a Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Fellow. The news is alarming:
* By fifth grade, 24 percent of the state's children have high blood pressure, 26 percent have high cholesterol and 29 percent are obese. They are heading straight for life-altering and life-ending diseases.
* At the current rate, West Virginia's total health care spending -- by all public and private payers -- will double by 2018, to $22.5 billion.
But for children and adults, the damage can be slowed, or even stopped.
In the coming months, "The Shape We're In" will examine many aspects of the state's chronic health problems, particularly as they relate to obesity. Americans have recognized for decades that people are gaining too much weight. Some contributing factors are well-known -- the sedentary nature of most work, lack of exercise, too many refined foods that the body easily converts to fat, limiting children's activity and outdoor time.
But this project plans to go further. Unlike any other health threat, this problem can be influenced and even reversed by individuals.
Certainly better health care is important. Access to doctors and related professionals make a difference. But the power to slow, stop and then reverse this epidemic is held by everyone.
West Virginians choose every day, sometimes by default, to go down this deadly road and to take their children with them. The choice is made dozens of times a day with decisions large and small. Breakfast. Soft drinks. Driving. Sitting. Neglecting safe play spaces. Procrastination. Denial. A lack of belief that one's actions make a difference.
There are obstacles, without a doubt. It can be tough, even dangerous, to walk regularly around blind curves with little shoulder, let alone sidewalks. Schedules are tight. Work and family responsibilities are demanding. But obstacles can be overcome. Problems have solutions. Small steps lead to significant changes.
We hope West Virginians find themselves on these pages, along with ideas, motivation and inspiration to make a difference in their homes and communities.
Health statistics suggest that there are children alive today who will live shorter lives than their parents because of the habits they are learning now -- the foods they are conditioned to prefer, the lack of opportunities to form lifelong exercise habits.
This growing problem threatens to void all the state's other efforts in pursuit of prosperity and happiness. Who will pay these doubling health bills? Who will be left to work even when more diverse jobs and industries are developed?
Study this issue with us. Conscientious people who understand the problem and what is at stake can turn this situation around.