10 Ways to Prevent Financial Disaster From a Serious Illness


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Many Americans, even those with insurance, could have their savings wiped out by just one serious illness. The average out-of-pocket cost of medical care for a critical illness in the United States is $7,575, and a heart attack alone costs a total of $14,234, according to a Sun Life Financial analysis of insurance claims. Luckily, there are steps people can take to improve their health and defend themselves against financial calamity.

Related: 14 Costly Health Problems and How to Catch Them Early

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About 20 percent of Americans still struggle to pay medical bills under the Affordable Care Act, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The New York Times, but Obamacare has reduced overall medical debt and roblems paying medical bills. People with health care coverage, especially low-income Americans who enroll in Medicaid, are better equipped to survive financial crises spawned by medical emergencies, lengthy hospital visits, or extended care.

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Family history can dramatically increase risk levels for many serious, expensive, and potentially deadly ailments, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Information about family medical history helps doctors assess risk, recommend screenings, and prescribe drugs -- and it's especially important for people considering having children. The American Medical Association has compiled a list of resources that make it easy to gather critical family medical information.

Related: 10 Free Ways to Protect Your Heart

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Regular checkups with a primary care provider are the surest defense against medical calamities. They alert patients to potential health issues and steps to prevent them, and make early detection of existing ailments more likely, dramatically increasing the chance of success with treatment. Schedule a doctor's appointment, get a checkup, and discuss future scheduling with a physician.

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Blood pressure tests are among the simplest and least expensive when it comes to preventing catastrophic illness. They are often free at pharmacies but serve as red flags for heart disease, the No. 1 killer in the United States. More than 614,000 Americans die from heart disease every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some because they were never diagnosed, and survivors can be doomed to lifelong debt and financial insecurity due to chronic illness and the need for lifelong medical care.

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The CDC reports that cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, killing nearly 600,000 people each year. It's also extremely expensive to treat. The average newly approved cancer drug costs a staggering $10,000 a month, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and some cost more than three times that. Patients are on the hook for a "significant" share of the cost, the ASCO says, in the form of deductibles, co-payments, and other out-of-pocket expenses. That makes early detection vital. Women should talk to their doctors about regular screenings for breast cancer, the most common cancer among women, as well as cervical, lung, and colon cancer. Men should focus on colon, prostate, and lung cancer, depending on age. The American Cancer Society has more age-specific information.

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Nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and both the individual and the country pay handsomely. A 2009 study found that health care spending was about 42 percent higher for obsese patients than for people with a normal body weight. Obesity is a precursor for other illnesses that could result in expensive medical crises, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even some cancers. Losing weight can obviously be difficult, but simple lifestyle changes such as walking and cutting out sugary drinks can produce dramatic benefits.

Related: 20 Easy, Low-Calorie Dishes for Quick Weight Loss

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Although it is now survivable, AIDS still has no cure and is one of the most expensive ailments to treat -- an estimated $326,500 over the lifetime of a U.S. victim diagnosed with HIV at age 35, according to a 2015 study. Although there is no vaccine to prevent HIV, a few lifestyle choices can radically reduce the chance of infection: Use condoms with water-based lubricants every time; if injecting drugs, use clean needles every time, and never share them. HIV-positive people who become pregnant should seek medical care right away to reduce the chances of passing it to a baby.

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If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start. There is no safe form of tobacco, which is still responsible for nearly half a million deaths a year and $333 billion in health care and lost productivity costs across the country, according to the American Lung Association. Smoking has been conclusively linked to heart disease, respiratory disease, and a range of cancers. WalletHub estimates that smokers sacrifice an average of $1.2 million to $2.5 million over their lifetimes.

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Adults getting sick with diseases that could have been prevented by vaccination cost the country $9 billion last year, according to a new study in the journal Health Affairs. An overwhelming majority, nearly $6 billion, can be traced to the flu. Influenza isn't a bad cold -- it's a deadly disease. Four flu pandemics killed tens of millions of people in the 20th century alone, and influenza still kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people every year in the United States, the CDC estimates. Spare yourself, your wallet, and the people around you the danger and burden with a simple flu shot at the beginning of the season.

Related: The Cheapest Chain Pharmacies for 10 Immunizations

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Diabetes is a leading cause of death in the United States, and at least one in four sufferers is undiagnosed -- meaning some 8.1 million people are living with diabetes and don't even know it, according to the CDC. Diabetes can trigger problems such as nerve damage and kidney disease and pile up an avalanche of financial and physical stress. The total cost to the country is estimated at more than $245 billion annually, and people with the disease spend about 2.3 times more on medical expenses -- about $13,700 each year, according to the American Diabetes Association. Eating better, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising more can help prevent the onset of some kinds of diabetes.

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