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10/19/03

How are we? Glad you asked

Killer mosquitoes buzzing around the dog’s water dish. Germ-laden droplets living and breeding on buses and handrails. For many, these images from the West Nile virus and SARS outbreaks earlier this year represented the newest and most urgent threats to the health of Canadians.

The only problem is, odds are neither virus will likely kill you.

Chalk it up to human nature, but we fear the wrong things.

Ottawa residents live in what’s arguably the world’s most affluent country, a nation that enjoys the benefits of clean water, a plentiful food supply and cutting-edge medical research probing the diseases that afflict us.

Living in the brave new world of 21st-century medicine, we’re confident our deliverance from a life of affliction will come from test tubes and lab benches, that scientific research will spell out why some of us get cancer, develop heart disease, get depressed or have strokes.

But by taking a quick peek at our own medical charts, a common thread emerges. All that stuff your mom told you is actually true and now she has science to back her up — if you eat your fruits and veggies and get off your duff and get moving, you could help save your own life.

Since scientists catalogued the entire set of human genes in the Human Genome Project in 2001, researchers have been working to find out which combination of the estimated 30,000 to 70,000 genes lead to complex diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

In the upcoming decades, people will get a head start on avoiding diseases through tests identifying the combination of genes that lead to life-threatening conditions.

However, while researchers inch their way toward pinpointing those markers, many of us are motoring merrily along on a crash course to our own self-destruction.

The illnesses that ail us are born from a murky mix of the genes we are born with and the environment that surrounds us — the food we eat, the toxins we smoke and the exercise we don’t do.

Our health may be our responsibility, but it’s a burden that we’d rather shirk than shoulder.

This series will focus on seven different ailments, conditions that not only claim the highest number of lives in Ottawa but also seriously affect the quality of life of thousands of men, women and children in the capital.

But the story of what ails us isn’t simply a catalogue of diseases. It’s also the account of ordinary people who suddenly find their days and nights at the mercy of invasive toxic cells, narrowing arteries, unpredictable blood-sugar levels and a suffocating cloak of sadness that smothers everything worthwhile in life.

These are the stories of your mom, your husband, the girl in your yoga class, the guy on your pickup hockey team and maybe even you.

They are girls like 16-year-old Emma Day who has waged two battles throughout her short life — one against her weight and the other against a society that sees obesity as a moral defect, a social curse, not a medical condition.

They are men like Tom Crocker, a retired principal and stroke survivor, who is adjusting to a home-bound life after a lifetime of carefree travelling with Ruth, his wife of 48 years.

These people show that sickness doesn’t happen to individuals alone, but to families.

On some fronts, Ottawa residents fit the profile of the healthy, green community featured in glossy tourist brochures. In 2000-01, more than 60% of Ottawa-Gatineau residents rated their health as "very good or excellent," while one-quarter of local residents said their health was "good," according to a Statistics Canada community health survey.

However, the flip side of our overall good health means roughly one in five Ottawa-Gatineau residents live with "moderate or severe functional health problems."

Cancer and heart disease pose the biggest threats to Ottawa residents. According to a 2001 joint report from Health Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society, about 40% of Canadian men and 35% of women will develop cancer during their lifetime.

Cancer will claim the lives of 25% of men and 20% of women, with lung, colorectal, breast and prostate cancers rounding out the list of the most common and deadly forms of the disease.

Measuring the potential years of life lost, cancer stands as Ontario’s No. 1 health problem, despite a 12% decline in the cancer rate since 1988.

Thanks to organized lobby efforts, screening for breast and prostate cancer has brought down the rates for those cancers but many experts say health care officials need to develop better screening and prevention programs to lower the high death rates of colorectal and lung cancer.

While cancer has elbowed out heart disease as the province’s leading cause of premature death, cardiovascular disease affects more Canadians than any other condition.

Arteriosclerosis or coronary artery disease — the narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart — is the most common killer in the western world, claiming more female victims than breast cancer.

About half of people with heart disease have a genetic history to blame but for the remaining 50%, a fatty diet, high blood pressure and other modifiable factors are the main culprits causing clogged arteries and heart attacks.

The mother of all risk factors — and the most preventable public risk to Canadians according to Health Canada — remains smoking, the top cause of lung cancer and heart disease.

While most Ottawa residents know the signs of a heart attack, many neurologists say we don’t know the symptoms of a brain attack — and we ignore them at our peril.

Every day, four people in Ottawa have a stroke, but few people recognize the warning signs and how getting to a hospital within three hours could spare them a life of permanent disability.

While stroke has an 80% survival rate, it’s one of the most feared ailments striking healthy Canadians. It’s the leading cause of adult disability in Canada, with 60% of survivors having trouble walking, talking or carrying on an independent life.
housands of local residents live with chronic conditions, diseases that never take a holiday. Many experts say our junk-food, couch-potato lifestyle is contributing to a possible explosion of Type 2 diabetes, a lifelong disease that carries the risk of amputation and blindness if a person’s blood-sugar levels aren’t controlled.

By age 70, one in four people are diabetic and some researchers say an outbreak is looming if Canadian children don’t slim down and get active.

Pediatricians say our children are already in the grips of an epidemic that threatens to spawn a new generation of health problems.

Too many Canadian adults are too fat and they’re passing down their bad eating habits and inactive lifestyles to their kids.
According to a 2000-01 Statistics Canada study of 18.6 million people aged 20 to 64, 32% of Canadian adults are overweight, a condition that leads to cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure.

The rates of childhood obesity in Canada tripled between 1981 and 1997, according to a 2001 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Recent studies have shown that almost two out of every three children are not active enough to be healthy.

In the past, many believed there were few health risks for overweight children, but doctors are now seeing an increase of Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure among kids, making computers, TV and junk food the the new health evils.
Most kids don’t have a care in the world when they’re playing with their friends, but for one in 10 Ottawa children living with asthma, their next breath is always on their minds.

The respiratory condition is the most common chronic disease among Canadian children and the top reason for children’s hospital admissions.

Asthma rates in Canada have quadrupled during the past 20 years, leaving many researchers scratching their heads over the blend of genetics and environmental changes to blame for the skyrocketing numbers.
any of the diseases listed above are well-known threats to our health, but some illnesses, such as depression, languish in the shadows.

It’s estimated that one in five Canadians will experience some type of depression during their life and virtually everyone will be affected by the condition through contact with a family member, a friend or a co-worker.

However, the high incidence of depression in society is overshadowed by how the illness goes undiagnosed and untreated for millions of Canadians, including thousands of Ottawa residents.

It’s estimated that for every 200 people with depression, only 40 will consult their doctor. An even smaller number of people will follow the treatment prescribed.

The costs that come with mental health problems go beyond a human price. In 1998, Health Canada estimated the economic burden of mental illness at $14.4 billion a year, an estimate that has since mushroomed to $30 billion, including indirect costs.
he story of what ails us is also the chronicle of the scientific detectives conducting clinical studies and poring over their results in an effort to make sense of a million-piece puzzle.

Ottawa has become one of Canada’s top health research centres, with groundbreaking studies and trials taking place in labs at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre, the Ottawa Health Research Institute and theChildren’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Translational research is the new buzzword in the scientific medical community, with an urgent push to bring the discoveries made in the lab to the patient’s bedside.

Some researchers say public health policy needs to take a dramatic shift to nip tomorrow’s health problems in the bud.
More than half of all cancer cases can be prevented, but Ontario now spends less than 1% of the cancer budget on prevention.

Jennifer Robicheau, a bubbly 38-year-old mother of two girls living with late-stage colorectal cancer, spent months living with a mysterious stomach illness that could have been detected and treated early on with a simple screening test.

"It’s so important for younger people who are complaining of something to just keep going back and know your body if you know that something’s wrong," says Robicheau, who is now undergoing her fifth round of chemotherapy.
For some, living with a serious illness brings a strange clarity to the bigger questions that define us.

"People ask us what they can do," says Robicheau’s husband Dave, watching his wife and daughters play in the family’s backyard.

"What can you do? Go home and hug your kids. Think about what you’re going to do." _


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