Latin American/Caribbean People Live Longer, Not Healthier

According to the World Bank, people in Latin America and the Caribbean live longer but suffer from a large array of non-communicable diseases, chronic conditions, smoking, and road traffic deaths.

High-blood pressure is just one of the chronic conditions now plaguing Latin America, creating an increasing burden to health in the region, according to a new report, The Global Burden of Disease: Generating Evidence, Guiding Policy. Since 1970, life expectancy within the region has increased dramatically, with people in many countries today living, on average, 30 years longer than their counterparts 40 years ago. However, while Latin Americans are living longer, the report warns they face an increased threat from chronic diseases, violence and road-traffic injuries. In fact, in 2010, non-communicable diseases (NCD) in adults, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes had overtaken communicable diseases in children as the leading cause of death in the region.

And nowhere is this more relevant than in the Caribbean, where the burden of NCDs has escalated to the point that five times as many people are dying from chronic diseases than from all other illnesses combined. Latin America’s growing prosperity is one of the factors fueling this switch. As the middle class swells, so has the region’s access to high-fat, high-sugar foods, which are helping fuel the changing outlook in many countries. But it’s not just junk food. As the countries in Latin America have become more developed, road injuries have begun to take a growing toll on human health. Each year 130 000 people die on the region’s roads, with a further 6 million left injured. As a result, Latin America now holds the unenviable top spot in a global ranking of road traffic deaths.  Much of the rise in NCDs in the Caribbean can be traced to individual risk factors such as unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

This year, World Health Day, the focus was on high-blood pressure. The second biggest risk factor for heart disease after obesity in Latin America, it’s estimated that 1 in 3 do not know they have high-blood pressure. As yet the exact causes are unknown, but lifestyle factors such as overeating, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise and smoking are considered to be major contributors. In Latin America today, a quarter of men and 13% of women in Latin America smoke, which constitutes a ticking time bomb for the region. Speaking on World No Smoking Day, Former President of Uruguay, Tabaré Vasquez, said that the key to kicking the habit is education. “Making people aware of the toll smoking has on their health is more efficient and cost-effective than caring for them after they get sick,” explained Vasquez .” This, too, resonates in the Caribbean, where diabetes
and obesity are changing the burden of health. Indeed, the former is ranked
among the top five causes of health loss in many Caribbean countries, whereas
in Jamaica alone more than 60% of adult women (35-54 years old) are either
overweight or obese.

“Much of the rise in NCDs in the Caribbean can be traced to individual risk factors such as unhealthy diets (the fried chicken experience), lack of physical activity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption,” explains World Bank Public Health Specialist, Carmen Carpio. But while NCDs have increased, the outlook is far from gloomy. Over the past two decades, Latin America has made substantial progress in newborn, nutritional and maternal health, leading to a decrease in premature death and disability from most communicable causes. [. . .]

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