Chronic diseases can be attributed to three factors; genetics, ageing and lifestyle. By ensuring that you make healthy lifestyle choices, you will be taking precautions that will allow you to completely avoid some diseases and to significantly defer others.
Healthcare is big business. Whether it is the development of drugs, the provision of hospital care, or the production of medical equipment, there is good money to be made from people being sick. Illness, in particular chronic illness, generates incredible amounts of revenue for medical organisations. However, the financial cost to society for being long-term unwell is one that can be seen to be as a polar opposite to the vast profits being made by the private healthcare sector. A 2007 study conducted in the U.S. on behalf of the American Diabetes Association estimated that the national economic burden for the country for diabetes alone was $174 billion; a figure that was broken down into approximately $116 billion for additional health care expenditure for the condition and $58 billion for lost productivity from work absenteeism, disability, and premature mortality. The figures make for sober reading for the UAE, considering the high prevalence of diabetes within the region.
Many people remain unaware of the disease consequences of their behaviour with regards to their health. They take their bodies for granted, which can lead to chronic diseases that result in a burden for the family and society, as well as a reduction in the quality of life for themselves. Our bodies are finely-tuned machines that give subtle early warning signs for most chronic diseases. If these signs are not acted upon, the result may be the development of disorders such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac disease and kidney ailments. It is therefore imperative that we know how to head off such conditions before they become long-term problems. With this in mind, here is some important information you should know about what you can do to prevent the onset of chronic health conditions:
Although we consume the same amount of calories that our parents or grandparents ate decades ago, our body requirements have declined, as we do not undertake the same level of energy-expending manual work as our forefathers did. We eat the same amounts, or even more, but burn fewer calories in our daily activities. Housework has become easier, with machines taking over the energy-intensive tasks of old. Clothes are washed and dried using a washing machine and tumble dryer and are no longer manually scrubbed and hung out to dry. We don’t walk or ride bicycles any more, but travel in the comfort of cars, with many households having more than one vehicle. We don’t walk up stairs, but take the lift to our residence. All-in-all, we burn less energy while consuming more food, which is a recipe for obesity.
Establishing whether you are clinically obese and therefore at a higher risk of developing illness is simple and doesn’t even require a trip to a clinic. The standard method for working out whether you are overweight is the Body Mass Index (BMI) and this can be calculated in your own home with just a tape measure and set of weighing scales. Using these simple tools, measure your weight in kilogrammes and divide this figure by your height in metres squared. This will give you your BMI, as follows:
Height = 170 cm (1.7 m)
Weight = 70 kg
BMI Calculation: 70 ÷ (1.7)² = 24.2
According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, this is what your BMI tells about your weight:
- Underweight = Lower than 18.5
- Normal weight = 18.5 – 24.9
- Overweight = 25 – 29.9
- Obese = 30 or greater
If your BMI is above 30, you are at significant risk of experiencing a sudden heart attack or stroke – the higher your BMI is over the normal range, the harder your heart will have to work. And it’s not just the body’s organs that are affected. The more body weight you carry around, the greater the strain on your joints and the more likely it is that you will require a joint replacement in the future. Those of Middle Eastern and Asian ethnicity need to take particular care and should aim to maintain their BMI below 23, as this population group is hereditarily prone to obesity, cardiac diseases and diabetes.
Obesity is the root cause of all chronic diseases and our modern-day unhealthy lifestyles mean that some conditions, such as circulatory disorders, are now occurring 20-30 years earlier than previously. Diseases that used to be associated with being 50-60 years of age a decade ago are now being seen in 20 year olds. However, obesity itself is easily combated by the simple application of self control. Committing to a programme of exercise is the best way of losing extra body weight, as expending energy gets rid of surplus calories so that they do not accumulate in the body as fat. There are 24 hours in a day and as a guide, we should spend 5% of our time on efforts to stay healthy through exercise — just 72 minutes. Of this, 45 minutes could be taken up with brisk walking or swimming and 25 minutes spent undertaken with more passive deep breathing exercises. The latter can be combined with meditation that will promote relaxation and help relieve stress. The bottom line is that the formula is quite basic. As long as you expend more calories than you ingest, you will lose weight. If you eat more, you should exercise more. It’s as simple as that.
Diabetes is a disease that is intrinsically linked to lifestyle. Its incidence has rocketed over the past 50 years as more and more of us lead a sedentary lifestyle, forego exercise and cram ourselves with foodstuffs that are high in sugar and carbohydrates and low on fibre. There are two forms of diabetes mellitus; Type 1, where there is no insulin production by the pancreas and Type 2, where there is some production of insulin, but not enough to sufficiently control blood sugar levels within a healthy range. Type 2 diabetes is closely related to obesity. If your BMI is over the upper range, you should visit your doctor to see if you have this form of diabetes, as there are frequently no obvious signs and symptoms. One way of detecting Type 2 diabetes is for your doctor to monitor the levels of a form of haemoglobin (red blood cell) known as HBA1C. High levels of this (above 6.5%) are an indication that your blood sugar levels have been unacceptably high over a prolonged period of time, meaning that you may be predisposed to the following serious health conditions:
- Kidney disease: Between 32-40 per cent of all diabetics have chronic kidney disease, which can result in the need for regular dialysis, or even a kidney transplant. Suffice to say, treatment for chronic kidney disease can be painful, difficult and expensive. Four out of 10 people who have diabetes will develop chronic kidney disease.
- Impotence: According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, 50 per cent of men with diabetes will suffer from erectile dysfunction within 10 years of diagnosis, resulting in impotence.
- Heart disease: Stickier blood from high blood glucose levels affects the body’s blood vessels. In the heart, this can lead to its arteries blocking, resulting in a heart attack.
- Loss of sight: Diabetic retinopathy results from an inadequate blood supply to the eyes and can often lead to blindness
- Loss of limbs: In severe cases, a diabetic patient will develop gangrenous extremities, in particular the feet, which will necessitate amputation. The affects of uncontrolled blood sugar levels are more pronounced on the narrower blood vessels at the end of the limbs.
The good news is that Type 2 diabetes can be successfully countered by making relatively easy-to-manage lifestyle adjustments. If diagnosed with having this disorder, maintaining your blood sugar levels within a healthy range is imperative. The ideal way to control blood sugar levels is to take small meals every three to four hours, rather than having heavy breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Regular eating is important, as skipping meals leads to over eating later, which causes a spike in blood sugar. It’s not just candy and sweet treats that should be avoided, as well. The carbohydrates in rice, potato and pasta raise blood sugar levels, as they have a high glycaemic index. Such foods should therefore be taken in moderation. Ultimately, it is important to remember that if you are prescribed medication to treat your diabetes, this alone should not be the answer. Daily exercise and a strict, healthy diet regimen are vital components as well.
High blood pressure (hypertension):
The main cause of a high blood pressure is stress, being overweight, having diabetes and consuming too much salt with your diet. There are no visible signs of hypertension in its early stages, meaning that you might feel perfectly well until the day you collapse with either a heart attack or a stroke. An early diagnosis of hypertension means that treatment can be relatively straightforward, usually with blood pressure lowering medication, a reduction in the intake of salt, participation in a gradually escalating exercise regime and weight loss.
Maintaining your body:
In the same manner that you would send your car for service after it has completed a certain mileage, you also need to look after your body with regular check-ups to detect any problems. It is important (especially if you are over the age of 40 years) to visit your doctor for twice-yearly consultations to establish your resting blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels. Men should have a prostate check every two years and women should have a mammography to detect for breast lumps.
The earlier the diagnosis of any condition, the earlier that treatment can start and the more likely it is that this treatment will have a strong component of diet control and lifestyle modifications. Leaving disorders to become more advanced ensures that medication is more often indicated. Chronic diseases can be attributed to three factors; genetics, ageing and lifestyle. By ensuring that you make healthy lifestyle choices, you will be taking precautions that will allow you to completely avoid some diseases and to significantly defer others. Staying healthy means that not only will you enjoy an enhanced quality of life, but you will also be helping the health of your community and wider society. You will be more productive, experience less absenteeism from work and will put less of a drain on resources. ‘Prepare and prevent’ is much better than ‘repair and repent!’
Rajendra Pratap Gupta is an international healthcare policy expert and his inputs are acknowledged by governments on healthcare policy. He is a strong advocate of preventive care and chronic disease management, sought after writer and speaker and sits on the boards of healthcare and retail companies across the world.