by Wendy Baldwin, president and CEO
Last year the United Nations focused the world’s attention on the growing impact of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) on low- and middle-income countries. In regions where infectious diseases are still common, diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases, and cancer are rising at an alarming rate. These diseases will swamp health care systems; and increasing urbanization and development will only accelerate the strain. What can be done?
NCDs share four risk factors: tobacco use, excessive alcohol, poor diet (and obesity), and sedentary lifestyle.
Some of these risk factors begin during adolescence; and for the others, communities can support young people in adopting healthier lifestyles. Being physically active is important and youth-led groups can promote participation in sports, dance, and running or biking clubs. Communities can work to make streets safe and accessible and provide space for activities.
The urban lifestyle has many benefits, but such a lifestyle also often includes eating fewer fruits and vegetables and more high-fat, sugary snacks and quick meals. But programs that are increasing the availability of healthy food in schools have been successful in helping young people.
Clearly, communities and nations can enact and enforce laws that restrict access to tobacco and alcohol to youth. Early initiation of these behaviors raises the risks of addiction. Fortunately, there are examples of successful programs that specifically lower use among youth, for example, increasing taxes on tobacco.
NCDs will drive the mortality patterns for low- and middle-income countries and burden the health care system. Now is a time to focus on how young people can build their resilience against these diseases.