Indians, as individuals and as part of public health programs, are waking up to the reality of a health crisis. The good news: a sample of across the country health-talk reveals that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has proposed outpatient departments to treat lifestyle diseases in each of its 24 wards. Thiruvananthapuram has a ‘Snehasparsham’ program to stop the growing menace of lifestyle diseases. Fitness programs have mushroomed all over the urban landscape and yoga is re-establishing itself in modern Indian culture. The bad news: a recent research study revealed that there is a lot more work to be done. Amongst India’s big cities, Chennai has the largest diabetic population whereas Chandigarh and Delhi take the lead in obesity. Bangaloreans and Delhites are in-a-tie for the highest cholesterol values, while Kolkata has the largest number of smokers. Citizens of Ahmedabad score the least in terms of exercising and eating fruits. These are a tip-of-the-iceberg data on the lifestyle diseases boom in India.
Lifestyle diseases, sometimes known as non-communicable diseases, are those which deve lop as a consequence of an individual’s way of life. These illnesses include obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), atherosclerosis and stroke. Also residing under this umbrella are multiple health conditions resulting from tobacco and alcohol use (alcoholism, pulmonary, liver and kidney disorders). Health news nowadays is a chorus line: a person’s diet and way-of-life has a lon
g-reaching impact on his or her health.
The lives of urban Indians – men, women or children – are under the scanner. Is stress leading to the rise of heart disease in young men? Are working women more vulnerable to lifestyle ailments? Is the increase in western-style fast food diet leading to overweight children? All scenarios have a common theme – diets rich in fat, salt and sugar plus tobacco and alcohol consumption damage the liver, kidney, lung and digestive system. Adding insult to injury is the lack of dietary fruits, vegetables, and unrefined grains accompanied by insufficient exercise and sleep. Such poorly nourished and carelessly treated bodies are a breeding ground for all the major diseases of the day.
In recent years the buzz around the concept of “lifestyle diseases” has reached a near crescendo. So is this is a new concept or has it been around but getting its due recognition only now? The table below offers a high-level snapshot of the history of lifestyle diseases.
Historically, lifestyle diseases were not given much importance because people often did not live long enough for these illnesses to reach a critical stage. The fatal contagious (or communicable) diseases were a bigger concern. However in the 20th century, a sharp fall in contagious diseases, especially in the western world, led to increased life spans. In the mid- to late 20th century the western world prospered and its people propagated a popular “fast” culture that ignored the conventional wisdom of moderation in dietary and lifestyle habits. The on-the-go lifestyle, considered exciting by the younger populations, was whole-heartedly adopted locally as well as globally. In parallel, scientists and medical professionals began to record an emerging link between lifestyle choices and increasing occurrence of certain diseases. Doctors also discovered links between various illnesses such that the presence of one disease increased the chances or risk of developing other diseases.
In April 2011, Moscow hosted the “first global ministerial conference on healthy lifestyles and non-communicable disease control”. A 2008 WHO (world health organization) report estimated that 36 million (63%) of worldwide deaths were caused by lifestyle diseases such as heart diseases, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory disease. Sample health data from US and England – the much-blamed “western influence” on lifestyle in urban India – shows that 33% of the US population and nearly 25% of England’s population is obese. Obesity increases a person’s risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and cancer.
A 2011 report from Pune is an indicator of how rapidly lifestyle diseases have spread over the last decade. Recorded cases of hypertension-related deaths rose from 2 (2002) to 1,149 (2011) and diabetes-related critical illness rose from 1 (2001) to 1,343 (2011). Overall almost 45% of recorded deaths, in 2011, were attributed to unhealthy life habits such as lack of exercise and sleep as well as overeating or irregular eating. The most worrisome factor in the lifestyle diseases story is the emergence of “old age” (50-70yrs) health problems in the “younger population” (20-50yrs). The incidence of obesity, diabetes and heart diseases such as stroke is steadily increasing in the “high-productivity” and “family-life” stages of the urban Indian.
Today over 60 million Indians have diabetes, of which 50% are aged 35-55 years, and estimated to reach 70 million by 2025. Type2 diabetes, a recognized epidemic, arises most often in overweight and physically inactive people. So, the encouraging news for diabetics is that early detection with changes in a healthy diet and physical activity effectively controls the condition. However, only 50% of potential diabetics are aware of their risk for developing this disease.
In the 21st century, lifestyle diseases are at the centre stage of personal and public health forums because of their cumulative and domino-like effect on an individual’s ability to live a healthy life. But the number one reason for the widespread talk around lifestyle diseases is the prevention factor. By altering (even to the point of moderation) dietary, physical activity and sleeping habits an individual can dramatically improve his or her chances of a healthier and longer life.
The key message is to adopt a lifestyle built on safe and healthy ways to enhance physical and mental well-being.