Don’t you ever get tired of hearing it? I sure do, the same old song:

“Louisiana ranks 49th in [insert random healthcare measure] compared to the other 50 states! We need to do something about that!” I really didn’t get what that was about. Until a few weeks ago…

Recently, I spent five days in California, specifically in the area between San Jose, Monterey and Paso Robles — wine country on one end and Silicon Valley on the other. Before I left on this adventure, I decided to take with me a raft of statistics about the health of Louisianians versus Californians and see if I could match them up with my eyes.

Then, I thought, maybe I could figure out what we could work on fixing and what we just need to let go.

“(W)e can affect our chances of cancer, heart disease, accidents, stroke, etc., with our behavior.”

Here are my thoughts:

First? The weather. Something we definitely cannot change.

California has most of the advantages here. It is cooler (eight degrees lower on average), drier (38 fewer inches of rain a year), sunnier (400 hours more sunshine/year!) and less humid on a day-to-day basis. Of course, if you’ve been to Cali, you know there are also mountains, deserts and seashores in close proximity, so you can just about find any weather you are in the mood for if you travel a bit.

The overall impact of this more pleasant weather is a strong focus by the local population on outdoor activities.

Every hotel had outside seating, balconies overlooking something, even outdoor fireplaces so you could sit outside in the cold. There was a strong cultural focus on being outside. Plus, I saw a ton of convertibles with tops down on the highways, even on cool days.

Ever sit outside in south Louisiana on a July evening? If you manage not to drown in sweat, the mosquitos will carry you away. In five days in California, I didn’t see a SINGLE bug! Did they outlaw them? So not fair!

“Californians spend fewer dollars per person on healthcare than we do. Even though they live five years longer on average.”

So, weather? Score 1 for Cali.

I noticed something else about everyone outdoors… They weren’t eating. They were reading, talking, visiting, napping, planning, working on a laptop or cell phone, but not eating. What’s the last thing you did outside? I’m guessing crawfish boil or barbecue! Crazy, huh?

Second? Restaurant menus.
On the California coast, I saw a ton of seafood on menus, everything from tuna to crabs, shrimp, scallops, abalones, you name it. But they averaged ONE fried item on each menu (typically fish and chips). Pan-seared was about as close as you could get, and the seafood was always paired with tons of fresh veggies. No French fries, onion rings or hush puppies. Not sure they even know what that is.

Oh, you could still get a burger and fries in most restaurants, but by and large, they were not tasty, and nobody was eating them. Healthy seafood, cooked in a healthy way. Here, how hard do you have to scan your favorite restaurant’s menu to find something non-fried? And when you do, it’s usually drowning in butter!

“Creating this healthy culture here in Louisiana will be harder for us, but it’s not impossible. It will just take all of us working harder.”

On restaurant menus, score 2 for Cali. Here, we can start asking for healthier cooking alternatives; this is something culturally we could change if we are serious about improving our health.

Third? Exercise.
With such nice weather, you’d think there would have been a zoo of people running, walking and biking, and you’d be right. The hotels advertised their spa/fitness centers much more than their restaurants and bars. One hotel I stayed in had the fitness center on the ninth floor overlooking Monterey Bay! It would have been an awesome, top-dollar spot for a restaurant, but the view could only be enjoyed from a treadmill or exercise bike in California.

The hotel’s restaurants were 5-star, but on the ground floor with limited views. When I asked about a taxi or ride-sharing service, the consistent answers were “Oh sir, that’s within easy walking distance!” They had a very different definition of walking distance than we do here. In Louisiana, 10 blocks is not “easy walking distance,” especially in August.

While I don’t often see such a large group of people outside exercising in Louisiana, I drove by the LSU lakes the other day, and what do you think I saw? Hundreds of people walking, biking and running. Gives me hope for us, but the advantage is still California – score 3.

And this 3-0 score brings us to the Straight Talk piece: What’s the real healthcare scoop? I mean, how different can California’s health be compared to Louisiana’s today?

Impact on healthcare
Starting with life expectancy, let’s go to the grid:

Measure

Louisiana

California

Cali Difference

Life Expectancy (years)

75.7

80.8

+5.1 Years!

Cancer Deaths (per 100,000)

186

144

-42 people

Heart Disease Deaths

216

142

-74 people

Accidents, all types

49

29

-20 people

Stroke Deaths

46

34

-12 people

Lung Disease

46

32

-14 people

Diabetes

25

20

-5 people

Take a good look at the statistics in the grid above. I chose these measures for a reason. Everything below life expectancy has a major behavioral component affecting it! In other words, we can affect our chances of cancer, heart disease, accidents, stroke, etc., with our behavior. And I didn’t include cigarette use, but if I did, the win still goes to California. In Louisiana, 21.9% of the population smokes. In California, just 11.7% of the population does. Again, this is something we can control that has a big effect on health.

Golden State Lessons for the Bayou State
So, what’s the magic formula? You can start with this blog post and just rename it “I’m tired of Losing to California.” I know I want my +five years of life expectancy back. And more. How about you?

The kicker is that they win on cost, too — Californians spend fewer dollars per person on healthcare than we do. Even though they live five years longer on average.

Creating this healthy culture here in Louisiana will be harder for us, but it’s not impossible. It will just take all of us working harder.

“But Mike, everyone knows California is a richer state – isn’t that how they can do this stuff?” Well, it’s true that the average household in California earns $18,000 more income than the average Louisiana household. And money flowing into California from Venture Capital deals is equivalent to over $3,000 per person. How much outside investment does Louisiana attract? Try $22 per person. Pretty sad, really.

But, money isn’t everything with health, either. While Californians have financial resources we don’t, it doesn’t cost anything to exercise a bit more. It takes very little effort to listen to your doctor, take your medications and get a good night’s sleep. Quitting tobacco might be a little harder, but there are plenty of resources – many at low or no cost – to help you do it. ALL of these things can be done with making an effort and very little money, and these things would shift Louisiana’s numbers.

It’s high time to stop looking across state borders with such envy and start fixing what we can fix, which centers around taking our health seriously, eating more sensibly and not using weather and “that’s the way it’s always been” as our excuses.

I’ll tell you Straight, if I can work hard to eat better, take my meds and exercise, anybody can! Join me!

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