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Lifestyle and diet are the keys to reducing national health care costs: Dr. Dean Ornish

Dr. Dean Ornish has a solution for lowering the nation’s skyrocketing health care costs: Lifestyle medicine. Ornish’s 37 years of clinical research show that chronic diseases such as severe coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and early-stage prostate cancer can be reversed or prevented by changing one’s diet and daily lifestyle habits. The best-selling author of six books including “Eat More, Weigh Less” and “The Spectrum,” and founder of the nonprofit Preventative Medicine Research Institute, tells The Daily Ticker that “limitations to high-tech approaches are becoming clear.” Randomized studies have determined that traditional treatments do not prolong life or prevent heart attacks, he notes, and lowering blood sugar with drugs “doesn't work nearly enough as it does by getting it down with lifestyle.”

Health care spending in the U.S. rose 3.7% in 2012 to $2.8 trillion or $8,195 per person according to The National Health Expenditure Accounts (NHEA). National medical costs affiliated with obesity -- a rising epidemic in the U.S. and around the world -- were $147 billion in 2008, or $1,429 more per person compared to people of normal weight. More than two-thirds of U.S. adults are obese or overweight.

Related: How to Lose 35 Pounds Without Dieting

“Three-quarters of the $2.8 trillion that we spent on health care costs last year were predominately 'sick care' costs,” says Ornish. “If we can treat the underlying causes, which to a large degree are the lifestyle choices we make each day, we can make better care available to more people at lower costs, and the only side effects are good ones.”

Related: Is there anything wrong with a $1,000 per day prescription drug?

The “Ornish diet” – one that promotes mostly plant-based meals and low-fat foods – was named No. 1 for heart health in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 by U.S. News & World Report. Ornish served as an adviser to the White House Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health, as well as the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy under Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Ornish’s lifestyle management approach received its biggest recognition when Medicare decided in 2010 to provide coverage for his program to reverse heart disease, the first integrative medicine practice to be included in Medicare. Ornish and his staff are training hospitals and clinics throughout the country about the regimen, including some of the biggest and best known in the medical community: Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and the UCLA Health System.

Mutual of Omaha – the first major insurance company to cover Ornish's program – found that almost 80% of people who were eligible for bypass surgery or angioplasty avoided surgery by following Ornish's guidelines, a savings of almost $30,000 per patient. Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield also documented significant cost savings for patients who completed Dr. Ornish's heart disease program. Overall health care costs dropped by 50% after only one year and by an additional 20% to 30% when compared to a matched control group, the insurer reported.

Ornish believes federal health care spending will decline when lifestyle medicine is habitually promoted before expensive operations and procedures.

“If you change reimbursement you change medical practice,” he adds. “This is not just prevention. We’re creating a new paradigm of health care that’s more cost effective as well as medically effective.”

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