It wasn’t that long ago that global hunger was one of the biggest health crises affecting our planet. In fact, it was just 30 years ago that nations across the globe banded together to help relieve hunger, marked by the iconic song “We Are the World.” Needless to say, times have certainly changed.
While hunger is still very much an issue in many parts of the world, according to a large report published last month in The Lancet, obesity has overtaken hunger as the biggest health crisis facing the planet. This report, called the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, was a collaboration of 486 researchers from 302 institutions in 50 different countries who worked together to evaluate overall global health, trends in disease and causes of death.1
Where We Stand Today
In addition to this disturbing news about the worldwide obesity epidemic, researchers noticed a rising number of deaths from non-communicable diseases, which rose by about eight million cases between 1990 and 2010. Additionally, cancer deaths increased by 38 percent in that time, and heart disease and stroke caused one in four deaths worldwide, compared to one in five in 1990.
Diabetes caused 1.3 million deaths—twice as many as in 1990. Not surprisingly, the dramatic rise in non-communicable diseases like heart problems and diabetes can be directly attributed to the higher number of obese people in the world.
Yet, despite this rise in non-communicable diseases, life expectancy among men and women has risen. From 1970 to 2010, the life expectancy of men increased from 56.4 years to 67.5 years. In women, life expectancy went up from 61.2 years to 73.3 years.2
However, this isn’t as great as it sounds. Even though life expectancies in both men and women have gone up, many of these people have a poor quality of life due to their poor lifestyle choices and obesity. In fact, researchers also learned that the average person now spends the last 14 years of their life living with a terminal illness or in pain.
What Do These Findings Mean?
In terms of risk factors for disease, researchers found that in most of Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and central Europe, the top risk factor was high blood pressure, while tobacco smoking (including secondhand smoke) was the leading risk factor in high-income North America and Western Europe. High body mass index/obesity is the leading risk factor in Australasia and southern Latin America, but also ranks high in North Africa, the Middle East and Oceania.3
What this research shows is that much of the world has adopted the “western” lifestyle, which consists of an unhealthy diet filled with processed, sugar- and trans-fat laden foods, topped with lack of exercise and a general “couch potato” existence. This has translated to a larger-than-ever number of people dealing with obesity and the resulting effects—cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, to name a few.
All this translates to skyrocketing health care costs over the next 20 years. By some estimates, non-communicable diseases will cost more than $30 trillion to treat, representing 48 percent of the gross domestic product in 2010.4
Enough already! How many more studies and reports do we have to do and read to understand that the focus of medicine MUST switch from treating symptoms and diseases to preventing them from developing in the first place. And the easiest—and cheapest—ways of preventing most non-communicable diseases is to cut out all junk food, eat a clean, healthy diet and exercise regularly.
Even in those already suffering from many non-communicable diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes, lifestyle modifications can make a world of difference in treating—and even eliminating—the disease.
If these changes in mindset and lifestyle don’t happen soon, this research unequivocally shows that we are facing not only a global health catastrophe, but financial catastrophe as well.
Horton R. Lancet. 2012 Dec 15;380(9859):2053-4.
Wang H, et al. Lancet. 2012 Dec 15;380(9859):2071-94.
Lim S, et al. Lancet. 2012 Dec 15;380(9859):2224-60.
The Global Economic Burden of Non-communicable Diseases. www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Harvard_HE_GlobalEconomicBurdenNonCommunicableDiseases_2011.pdf.
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