There once was a town in the heart of America where health seemed to come naturally for everyone. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of organic and wholesome farms. Fresh fruit and vegetables were bountiful and affordable. Within the town itself, recreational opportunities were free and plentiful – children, adults, and senior citizens were often seen exercising with broad smiles on their faces.
Along the roads, local cooks prepared and sold wholesome foods. People often walked to work and worked with little stress or conflict with their colleagues or their competitors. Education was free and highly valued.
Ever-present to those who listened, within the clean air was a strong sense of a desire – an expected and shared need among all people – to move their bodies regularly, always eat healthy food, moderate their sweets and treats, and love each other and themselves at all times. There was an almost touchable reality that everyone could live a happy and healthy life.
People gathered frequently in public and private to discuss the events of the day and collectively make decisions about the town’s future. Individual choices and differences were always respected, while group cohesion and shared benefit were equally valued.
In short, this town in the heart of America was a healthy and happy community where health was truly embraced as a resource for living a happy and full life.
One day, for unknown reasons, the sun rose to meet a newly cloudy sky. The light that broke through now revealed a disorganized, gloomy, and unhappy community.
The demand for doctors and nurses began to rise. People now feared illness as a guaranteed outcome of living. The specter of early death began to cloud decisions. Fear became a deciding factor so that those who used to enjoy exercise now feared injury. People who used to walk to buy fresh produce now stocked up on food preserved by chemicals. Those who used to enjoy cooking a fresh family meal together now reheated processed foods of unknown origin.
Hospitals became full, emergency rooms became crowded, and the cost of providing “sick care” became a burden on the entire community. Those with less were often denied care, while those with more created havens that isolated them from the community’s shared reality.
Given the increased demands for care and to save time, health professionals developed a way of speaking that was unique to their profession – but no one else understood them. Some people became fearful of medicine and the health system, refusing to seek care until it was too late.
Parks became unsafe. Streets were left unclean. Parts of town began to lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease that were once widely prevented became commonplace and accepted as normal. The community’s debt continued to grow from the costs of treating preventable diseases.
To save money, schools were closed or consolidated. Higher education became a privilege for a few – not a right for everyone. Children who could not read and write well became adults who could not read or write well.
This town that once focused on preventing illness and promoting healthy lifestyles now ran only on fear, instead of on love. Academics often concluded the poor and sick were to blame for their problems because they did not comply with the orders from health care professionals that they didn’t understand.
This town is fictional, but the description truly reflects the reality of too many towns around our nation. What has changed over the past several decades is that health literacy disappeared. People lost their ability to find, understand, evaluate, communicate, and use information to make informed decisions about their life.
The poor became disenfranchised, slowly retreating into lifestyles that lacked fresh food and exercise but were abundant in depression and stress. People became short-term pleasure seekers, instead of thinking about how everyone across their community can be supported to live a long and healthy life. Systems became over-burdened caring for ill and injured people who did not have the ability to care for themselves.
That dismal future, though all too real for too many people today, is not inevitable. We can work together to create a brighter future.
Embrace your own health, embrace your family’s health, embrace your community’s health! Actively work every day to prevent disease in your life. That is the path, through health literacy, to a happy, healthy future where good health is not only a human right but well within everyone’s reach.
Andrew Pleasant is Senior Director for Health Literacy and Research at Canyon Ranch Institute and a member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Roundtable on Health Literacy This article is part 3 of an occasional series for Connect Savannah readers and is written in homage to writer, scientist, and ecologist Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, her now-classic book on the environment.