Grassroots health care reform: How Americans can cut $1 trillion in health care costs

smokingAmericans are throwing $2.2 trillion at rising health care costs. But experts say there's a way we can cut out as much as $1 trillion. "Take better care of ourselves," says Margaret Lewin, MD, medical director of Cinergy Health.

It sounds simple. Take care of yourself, spend less on health care.

But experts say Americans are missing the mark when it comes to smoking, diet and other lifestyle choices.

"To stop the upward spiral of health-care costs, we have to attack the causes," Lewin, who is also a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Cornell University, told WalletPop.

Lewin says there are many things we can do that will shave daily budgets -- as well as save us big health care bucks later on.

Here's a few ways you can adopt a healthier - and cheaper - lifestyle.

Say "goodbye salt shaker"

Despite the economic downturn, the research firm Mintel says salty snacks like potato chips are flying off store shelves at a rate that's 20% faster than previous years.

Lewin says laying off salt can cut down your chances of developing hypertension and other cardiovascular disease. It also can reduce your risk of stroke.

It can also save you money. The research group Rand Corp. issued a report in September stating that lowering sodium intake to recommended levels could save the U.S. $18 billion annually.

Butt out

The CDC says tobacco is the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths and estimates about 44 million Americans are smokers. Even though the number of smokers is trending downward, experts say current and past smokers are still poised to spend a lot, about $96 billion according to the CDC, on health care.

So long sugar

Obesity is edging out several other diseases as a leading cause of death. The CDC estimates carrying excess weight is the second-leading cause of preventable death, behind smoking.

According to a report published in Health Affairs, our expanding waistlines account for almost $150 billion of all medical spending, up 6.5% from 1998.

Ditching sugary snacks and soda, Lewin says, will cut your chances of developing diabetes. Not to mention helping manage weight, which helps keep your heart healthy.

Avoid alcohol

"Nearly one quarter of general hospital admissions are directly or indirectly related to alcoholism," says Lewin shedding light on the third leading cause of preventable deaths: excessive alcohol use. Lewin adds alcohol is responsible for 50% of all liver disease-related deaths in the U.S.

Alcohol's health care price tag: about 45.5 billion. "Not to mention indirect costs of time lost from work and productivity," said Lewin.

Up your air quality

Experts say pollution is becoming a pretty big health problem. "Air quality can contribute to asthma and allergy-related health issues," Lewin said.

Outdoor air pollution is one culprit. A report last month from the non-profit National Academy of Sciences estimated that air pollution associated with electricity generation and vehicle transportation contributed to $120 billion in health-care problems in the U.S. in 2005, the most recent data available. But indoor air quality is a factor, too, Lewin says.

The bottom line

"A healthy lifestyle is affordable," says Lewin. In fact, in most cases, like cutting out smoking, it can save you money the moment you start living healthier.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer specializing in consumer issues.

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