With a renewed sense of urgency, President Barack Obama and Republicans proposed competing plans this week to cut the budget deficit. Both agree on the need to cut Medicare spending. For years the portion of the federal budget spent on health care has continued to grow, and health care inflation regularly outpaces other aspects of the economy.
One key driver is our aging population. In addition to cutting reimbursement for health services, the U.S., Europe and Japan are seeking broader solutions to mounting financial pressures from unsustainable entitlement programs. Seniors are being asked to work longer before retiring. When doing so, they pay more into the system and draw out less.
To cultivate a sustainable solution, we need more than economic strategies. If we want to keep people in the work force longer, they must have the physical and mental capacity to remain productive. It is also essential that they feel valued for their experience and wisdom and have increased time flexibility, if not more pay, as they offer their services.
Can lifestyle and wellness make a positive impact on the cost of health care and the ability of people to be productive for more years? There is no question that improving behaviors that drive what we eat, how much we exercise and whether we smoke will reduce the price tag for care. We must continue to improve early detection and prompt, effective management of cancer and chronic disease from dementia to diabetes.
As a culture we can reach still deeper. Think about the benefit of a balanced and focused mind. A new pilot study in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that a practice called Mindfulness Meditation could result in greater relief than morphine. That’s important because the older we get, the more likely we are to be afflicted by chronic pain. Narcotic medications are effective, but eventually people build tolerance, requiring more and more medicine to achieve the same relief. Healthy psychological relationships with the realities of physical pain go a long way toward quality of life and productivity, and do moderate health care costs.
According to Thanh Huynh, a well-respected Hawaii radiation oncologist: "Research has shown that Mindfulness Meditation practice can reduce pain, stress, burnout and depression. It can also improve quality of life and immune function in both patients and ‘healthy’ people." Mindfulness practice, sometimes called Insight Meditation, focuses attention on the movement of the breath while observing thoughts that may arise in a nonjudgmental way.
Awareness of the breath as a bridge to personal wellness and healthy relationships is central to Hawaiian culture. The term "haole" literally means "no breath." This was the term traditionally used for foreigners because they did not use the honi (the Polynesian kiss) when greeting. The honi is done by touching nose to nose and inhaling or sharing the same breath. The deeper implication is that foreigners did not have a balanced spirit.
It might seem a stretch, but the truth is that an easy breath and a healthy spirit fuel a healthy lifestyle which results not only in a better quality of life, but also a stronger economy. We need all the help we can get to balance the federal budget.
Kapiolani Women’s Center is hosting a free introductory mindfulness workshop on April 30 from 1 to 3 p.m. For information call 527-2588.
Ira Zunin, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.