Prevention Works: How Health Statistics Contribute to Sound Policy Decisions

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 created the Prevention and Public Health Fund to prevent illness and promote the health of all Americans. The Prevention and Public Health Fund (the Fund) will provide $15 billion over the first 10 years and $2 billion each year after to national, state, and community efforts to promote health and wellness. These efforts will help prevent disease, manage conditions before they become epidemics, and decrease burgeoning health care costs. Recent efforts in the House and Senate to repeal the Act or the Fund to use the money elsewhere don’t allow the U.S. health care system to move from reactive to preventative. A repeal would be short-sighted as prevention not only has an important role in improving health and quality of life for Americans, but many preventive services are highly cost-effective and are likely to save the U.S. money in the long run.

The Affordable Care Act also created an Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health Council which will create a National Prevention Strategy. It is critical for such a strategy to include monitoring and surveillance of Americans’ food consumption and physical activity patterns. Nutrition monitoring conducted jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service can provide evidence-based answers to public health questions. The NCHS provides the most current statistical and epidemiological data on all aspects of our health care system to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of health services. Beyond tracking data on health insurance coverage, birth and death rates, and access to care, it is also responsible for monitoring the nation’s health and nutrition status through surveys such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), NCHS’ most complex and in-depth survey. Each year 5,000 individuals from all demographics are examined. Nutrition and health data, largely collected through NHANES, are essential for tracking the nutrition, health and well being of the American population, and are especially important for observing nutritional and health trends in our nation’s children.

For example, NHANES data on weight, dietary and physical activity patterns first made our nation aware of the enormity of the current obesity epidemic. Awareness of the growing obesity epidemic and the contribution of illness to escalating health care costs have highlighted the need for increased focus on prevention. The health care costs of obesity alone are estimated at $147 billion each year. (1) This enormous health and economic burden is largely preventable, along with the many other chronic diseases related to obesity that plague the U.S. Through learning both what Americans eat and how their diets directly affect their health, NHANES data enables us to continue to monitor the prevalence of obesity, as well as the rates of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers and track the performance of preventive interventions. NHANES data also enables us to assess ‘nutrients of concern’ such as potassium, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin D, which are consumed in inadequate amounts by many subsets of our population. For instance, NHANES data were recently used by the Institute of Medicine to assess the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for calcium and vitamin D, and conclude that most Americans receive adequate amounts of both calcium and vitamin D.

The statistical and epidemiological data compiled by NCHS are critical to guide public health, nutrition, and food policy development, including food safety, child nutrition, military rations and dietary guidance, and to monitor policy progress and outcomes. Continuous collection of health and nutrition data will allow us to determine not only if we have made progress against public health threats, but also if prevention funds are being appropriately targeted. Policies related to mercury in fish, sodium intake, folate supplementation of the food supply, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and changes in nutrition labeling have all been based on NHANES data. NHANES data impacts billions of dollars in federal expenditures. For example, NHANES data are used to determine funding levels for programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program the Women, Infants, and Children clinics, which provide nourishment to low-income women and children. Health statistics are instrumental in focusing education and prevention programs on altering the behaviors that cause poor health, enacting evidence-based policies that will promote healthy living, allocating prevention funds appropriately, and improving access to preventive services for Americans who need those most.



  • Finkelstein, E., Trogdon, J., Cohen, J., & Dietz, W. (2009). Annual medical spending attributable to obesity: Payer- and service-specific estimates. Health Affairs, 28(4), w822-31


The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is a professional scientific society dedicated to bringing together the world’s top researchers, clinical nutritionists and industry to advance the knowledge and application of nutrition to promote health. ASN’s over 4,100 members are helping Americans to live longer, healthier and more productive lives.


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I couldn’t agree more! Health monitoring data play such an important role in improving the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of health care provided in the U.S. and contribute greatly to disease prevention.

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