Healthcare Blog

Lifestyle Changes Can Avert Chronic Disease Disaster In The Americas

August 11, 2017

The countries of the Americas face a looming health crisis as their populations age and suffer increasingly from chronic diseases, said Dr. Cristina Beato, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), at a symposium organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Dialogue on Diversity.

Strategies that focus on prevention should be a top health priority throughout the region, she said.

"We talk about the Millennium Development Goals, which are aimed at improving health in developing countries. But there is something missing from those goals, and that is chronic diseases," said Beato. "Chronic diseases are going to be incredibly important in Latin America and the Caribbean and among Hispanic people in the United States."

Cardiovascular disease and stroke are already the leading causes of death in most countries of the Americas, and rates of diabetes are increasing throughout the hemisphere. The number of people with diabetes in the Americas is expected to nearly double from 35 million in 2000 to 64 million by 2025. Less than 20 years from now, 1 in 10 people in the Western Hemisphere will have the disease.

Many countries cannot afford the current costs of caring for these patients, particularly those needing dialysis or organ transplants, Beato noted. In the United States alone, more than 85,000 people are on waiting lists for organ transplants, and many countries elsewhere in the region cannot afford to provide dialysis for all patients who need it now.

As the number of cases grows, the challenge of caring for them will be overwhelming for developing countries in the region. "Diabetes is one of the looming issues among our populations," said Beato.

A particularly disturbing trend throughout the Americas is the appearance of type 2 diabetes, formerly known as "adult onset diabetes," at earlier ages.

"Fifteen years ago, I never ever saw a type 2 diabetic child in my office. Today, 8-10 percent of cases of type 2 diabetes are in children under 18 years old," said Beato.

While chronic diseases are the result of both genetic and environmental factors, their growing incidence in recent decades is clearly related to changes in lifestyle, Beato said.

"This is not the result of genetic changes in the population. What we are seeing is the result of lifestyle changes, with people moving away from traditional diets and engaging in less physical activity."

On the positive side, there is much that can be done, and at relatively low cost, to prevent the growth of chronic diseases.

"The key is prevention, raising awareness about simple changes to improve nutrition and increase physical activity. We especially have to reach out to vulnerable communities, including immigrant workers and the families they've left behind in Central and South America. We have to get them started on prevention, on not gaining weight, not smoking, on starting to move. If people can learn to do just 30 to 45 minutes a day of walking, for example, it may sound really simple, but we have to encourage patients to do it."

Also important are new drugs that are becoming available to treat insulin resistance, along with less-expensive generic drugs that, together with new monitoring technologies, can help control diabetes once it develops.

But prevention remains key, Beato said. "We all need to look at nutrition, how we move, how active are our kids. We need to raise awareness in our families, in our schools, everywhere we can. This is a wake-up call. There is an incredible human as well as economic cost of these diseases."