Diseases of Choice
By Allan R. Handysides and Peter N. Landless
I hear talk about “noncommunicable diseases” as an important health topic around the world. What are these diseases, and are the infectious diseases more concerning as a global threat to health? Am I at risk?
This is indeed a very topical question, and there has been much in the world news lately about noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). In September 2011 the United Nations hosted a high-level meeting to address the global crisis caused by the growth of these mostly preventable diseases. The words of the secretary-general of the United Nations describe the concern these diseases are generating. “Our collaboration is more than a public health necessity. Noncommunicable diseases are a threat to development. NCDs hit the poor and vulnerable particularly hard, and drive them deeper into poverty.”* This was after describing the outlook as grim because of the rapidly rising incidence of NCDs in all parts of the world, with poorer and emerging economies facing the greatest challenges and increase.
You are correct that communicable diseases are still a major problem, and this is illustrated by such conditions as tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS, malaria, and gastroenteritis still claiming millions of lives each year. For many decades there’s been a worldwide focus on initiatives to combat these diseases, such as improving sanitation and water quality and food security, as well as attempts to modify high-risk behavioral and sexual practices. While the spotlight has been directed at these infectious diseases, the NCDs have increased alarmingly and are a major cause of preventable death globally. They also are contributors to poverty and loss of productivity.
NCDs include mainly heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases. They affect all people and communities. The main risk factors are well known and are similar everywhere:
- foods high in saturated and trans fats
- excessive salt
- excessive sugar, especially in sweetened drinks
- physical inactivity
This list of risk factors will help you to decide if you are at risk.
Tobacco is smoked or chewed by more than 1 billion people daily and fueled by their addiction to nicotine. At least 5 million people die each year from tobacco-related deaths. These diseases are preventable if tobacco and tobacco smoke (including secondhand smoke) are avoided. Although tobacco use has decreased in many high-income countries, there’s an alarming increase of use in many low- and middle-income countries, and adolescents remain a prime target of the tobacco industry. In order to reduce the number of tobacco-related deaths and NCDs, not only does the rate of smoking initiation need to be decreased, but active stop-smoking strategies must be embraced and implemented.
It’s estimated that the consumption of foods high in saturated fats and trans fats, salt, and sugar is the cause of 40 percent of all deaths annually from NCDs (a figure that approximates 14 million). Many studies have shown the negative effects of these foodstuffs. The Adventist Health Studies have been pioneers in showing the benefits of a plant-based diet, low in saturated fats, with a variety of grains, vegetables, fruits, and some nuts (a small handful daily).
Alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death. It contributes to the causation of various cancers, and there is no safe level of consumption to prevent this particular danger. Sixty percent of deaths related to alcohol consumption are the result of NCDs.
Physical inactivity is related to the current pandemic of obesity, and also type 2 diabetes. Regular exercise leads to better heart health, improved weight management, prevention and improvement of type 2 diabetes, and a decrease in some cancers (breast and colon).
In summary, the NCDs are a major global threat, and concerted action and leadership at all levels are needed to curb this destructive scourge of illness. Many of the NCDs are totally preventable. Those at risk can be readily identified. This is a golden opportunity for each church congregation to be a community health center, and each church member a health promoter. It will make a difference to this broken world in which we live.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist,
is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist,
is associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.