Hard times aren't just causing Americans to cut back on shopping, vacations, and other pleasurable activities. One of life's essentials - adequate medical care - is being affected, too. A survey from the American Heart Association finds that 57 percent of people say that the economy has affected their ability to take care of their health.
The impact appears to be greatest on young adults, women and people with low incomes. But even one-third of those surveyed who earn more than $75,000 a year say that they are feeling squeezed.
About 10 percent have stopped or diminished their use of medicines to lower cholesterol, manage asthma, or treat other chronic conditions. Meanwhile, about 13 percent skipped their flu shots last year, and 18 percent are opting to forgo exams such as mammograms. Studies have shown that people under financial stress don't take care of themselves as well. Almost 30 percent are purchasing less fresh fruit and vegetables. If they end up neglecting medication or skipping dental cleanings, they're adding to their health risks.
Pressure on families' medical budgets has been building for decades. U.S. spending on health care increased from 7 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2008. A large portion of the total reflects our frequent use of advanced specialty care, in which American medicine leads the world. But according to the World Health Organization, our country ranks behind 30 others in promoting simple preventive care, good nutrition and exercise that enable people to live longer. Average life expectancy in the United States is about 78 years; In Japan it is 83 years.
U.S. health care needs to shift its focus away from treating illnesses and problems and move toward prevention instead. Some smart employers, health plans and medical providers are experimenting with ways to save people's health dollars or use them more effectively. Their goal is to make it easier, even in a recession, for families to receive the care they need.
The AHA is working to encourage all Americans to walk more every day, even just by taking a longer stroll around the mall or using a parking space a few hundred yards from the office door. And there's some evidence suggesting that getting out and being physically active can help reduce stress and help people feel more optimistic. In a recession, when so many factors weigh down people's spirits, this can be very important.
If you cannot afford to go to a doctor or don't have insurance, consider visiting a lower-cost clinic. These clinics charge fees according to a sliding scale and will treat people without insurance. Many university teaching hospitals also have clinics that work on a pay-what-you-can-basis. Clinics run by dental schools are an excellent way to save up to 50 percent on everything from cleaning to crowns and cavities. The students receive extensive training and operate under the close supervision of a faculty member who checks their progress as they go.
Many drugstore chains and supermarkets offer free blood-pressure screenings. Hospitals and clinics frequently offer free screenings for diseases such as skin cancer and diabetes.
Whenever your physician prescribes a medication, ask if there is a generic - and cheaper - alternative. Many pharmaceutical companies have programs that enable people on limited incomes to get prescriptions at low or no cost.
The most important thing you can do to save money in the long run is take preventive measures by controlling your weight, exercising and not smoking.