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Dr. Lester Breslow, the Revolutionary

While we commemorate the death of Dr. Lester Breslow who spent 70 years working in the field of public health, we must acknowledge the gift that his work and accomplishments provided for our society.  Dr. Breslow’s progressive ideas, which were once thought of as outlandish, are now widely promoted and valued health practices.

Dr. Breslow’s most lauded accomplishment was a study of 6,928 people in Alameda County, California, that examined their behavior over intervals of up to 20 years. The study used quantitative analysis to prove that abiding by the majority of his proposed healthy habits could extend an individual’s life expectancy up to 11 years. The list of Dr. Breslow’s recommended healthy habits include; not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, sleeping seven to eight hours per night, exercising at least moderately, eating regular meals, maintaining a moderate weight and eating breakfast. Initially, the National Institute of Health panel of scientists who reviewed the proposal for this study unanimously rejected it. Dr. Breslow later commented, “They and many others thought the idea was bizarre.”  Yet, Dr. Breslow persevered and continued to research his “bizarre” ideas, which would come to be universally accepted tenets of health.

As early as the 1940s, Dr. Breslow focused his research on diseases linked to tobacco use. Three of his studies were cited in the landmark 1964 U.S. Surgeon General Report, which became the first national anti-tobacco campaign.  His research on tobacco use continued throughout his career. He was an advocate of Proposition 99, a tobacco tax voted into California legislation in 1988 to raise funds for health education, hospital services, physician services and public resources. To this day, his effect on tobacco-related disease prevention remains prevalent, with Proposition 29 (California Cancer Research Act), a new tobacco tax initiative to be voted on later this year.

At the commencement of his career in the field, public health was focused almost entirely on the treatment of communicable disease. However, Dr. Breslow felt it was crucial to broaden the vision of public health to chronic disease prevention. Given his influence, Dr. Breslow saw this transition occur in public health thought and practice amid his seven-decade career. In fact, prevention is a major focus of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with many provisions focused on preventive and primary care interventions. The ACA legislation will invest billions of dollars in prevention, wellness, and community-based programs aimed at lowering chronic disease rates, improving health outcomes, and creating a national focus on lifestyle and public health.

In observing Dr. Breslow’s accomplished life, the immense impact his revolutionary work has had and will continue to have is evident in our society. As the focus of public health persists to evolve towards lifestyle and prevention, Dr. Breslow’s essence will continue to be celebrated.

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