Alaska’s Health Department measures results of disease prevention programs in pounds

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(Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon) – Over the last four years, Alaskans in a statewide weight loss program shed a collective 10,600 pounds, the state Department of Health reports.

That is roughly 7 pounds of weight loss per person for the nearly 1,600 people in the state’s diabetes prevention program. A significant amount, according to state nurse consultant Jessica Downes, who works in the department’s section of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

“Preventing chronic disease and providing services to prevent complications from chronic disease is significantly important in improving the overall, whole life health of our Alaska individuals,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Cumulative pounds lost may seem like a strange metric for the state to monitor, but it’s one tangible way to see that its efforts to reduce and prevent chronic disease are working.

She said weight loss helps the adults in the program feel better, meet personal health goals, and prevent and manage many chronic diseases. Two-thirds of Alaskans are overweight or obese and nearly a third have high blood pressure, according to a recent state report. Prevention measures can help bring those rates down over time.

“Preventing diabetes is significantly less expensive than treating and managing diabetes,” said Downes. “Managing obesity before it becomes Type II diabetes is incredibly important. … Preventing the disease rather than treating the disease is the better approach to health care and public health services.”

Nearly 80% of the state’s Medicaid spending covered care for people with chronic diseases. It cost $1.67 billion, according to a state report. The same report found that the average annual Medicaid cost for each Alaskan with a chronic disease is roughly 10 times the cost for those without them.

The weight loss program is part of a group of preventative care programs, called Fresh Start. The programs include access to health coaches, materials like scales and arms cuffs and connection to others in the region who are grappling with the same health concerns.

The state used $1.5 million in federal grants to support the Fresh Start programs, which aim to help Alaskans lose weight, prevent or manage diabetes or lower blood pressure. The programs got a recent boost from COVID-19 funding, Downes said.