Are our lifestyles killing us?

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Lifestyle diseases largely occur due to how we live: from our environment and exercise routine, to the food we eat, and habits such as smoking, excessive drinking, and drug use. The bad news is that these diseases disproportionately affect poorer South Africans. But the good news is that these diseases’ progression can often be slowed by making lifestyle changes.

Health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease are lifestyle diseases, and, as their prevalence increases, it is clear that South Africans are becoming unhealthier. The latest Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) report on Mortality and Causes of Death in our country showed that tuberculosis is still the leading underlying natural cause of death.

But diabetes, ranked at number two on that list, is also a real cause for concern. It is difficult to pinpoint a genetic predisposition to these lifestyle diseases, but it is often the case that diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease will be common to family members who have the same or similar lifestyles. However, access to education about these lifestyle factors, as well as to information about better food choices, also play a part in how easily people are able to make lifestyle changes.

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According to a 2014 report by the South African Food Lab, an organisation working towards food security in the region, poor South Africans do not have good access to diverse and nutritionally balanced diets or healthcare. And in a country where socioeconomics and race are inextricably linked, the burden of lifestyle diseases falls on black communities. Chronic stress is further exacerbating the effect of lifestyle diseases.

This, according to lifestyle disease specialist Dr Hema Kalan, is linked to women’s adrenal stress, which affects insulin levels and insulin resistance. Higher insulin resistance, brought on by stress, predisposes people to type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 Diabetes

There were more than 1.8-million cases of diabetes in South Africa in 2017, according to the International Diabetes Foundation. Diabetes means the body is unable to produce insulin and manage how glucose is metabolised, leading to high levels of glucose in the blood. According to the Medical Research Council of South Africa, high body-mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol are leading risk factors in the development of Type 2 diabetes. If left untreated or poorly controlled, complications from the disease can include kidney failure, limb amputation, and blindness. Given the risk factors associated with the development of Type 2 Diabetes, it is important to note that lifestyle changes could significantly decrease one’s chances of becoming diabetic. These include a balanced, low-carb, low-sugar diet; exercising at least 30 minutes a day; and managing cholesterol levels.

Cardiovascular Disease

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In South Africa, 46% of women and 44% of men older than 15 years have hypertension, or high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and death. Like diabetes, hypertension is made worse by poor diet, lack of exercise, and excessive alcohol consumption and can be a cause of a broad spectrum of cardiovascular disease — diseases related to the heart. According to the Stats SA report, “other forms of heart disease” were ranked as the number one cause of death in Gauteng. Cardiovascular disease includes heart attacks and strokes that occur due to heart failure caused by blocked arteries. It is possible to lower one’s risks through stress management, exercise, and controlled diets made up of healthy fats, fewer carbs, and less refined sugar.

While these diseases are becoming an increasing problem for South Africans, it is important to note that they are preventable through the necessary lifestyle changes. Start by introducing 30 minutes of light exercise into your, day and by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables. Reducing stress, while difficult, will also go a long way to managing the development of these illnesses. And, where possible, have regular health checks so that you know what your cholesterol and blood glucose levels are, and are able to make the necessary changes to keep them under control.

This article first appeared in the September issue of S Magazine

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