Chronic diseases are common in the 21st century. However, with different lifestyles their incidence could be drastically reduced. Even when a chronic disease is already present it is possible to reduce the level of symptoms by changing lifestyle.
What are the chronic diseases that affect us in the 21st century?
Some chronic diseases are almost entirely genetic in origin, that is they would occur whatever lifestyle you or your parents led. Others occur as a result of exposure to infectious disease and again are unavoidable once you've been unlucky enough to contract the initial infectious disease. However most chronic disease is avoidable and occurs as a result of the lifestyles that we lead nowadays.
Chronic diseases with a genetic origin and their incidence per 1000 people.
All these diseases come with different degrees of severity. While they are listed as being genetic in origin some have an environmental components. For instance otosclerosis has been linked with measles. These diseases are relatively rare.
- Otosclerosis - 5.0, Hearing loss due to excess bone growth in the middle ear.
- Familial hypercholesterolaemia - 2.0, Very high levels of cholesterol leading to early onset heart disease.
- Polycystic kidney disease - 1.0, Potentially fatal kidney disease involving cysts.
- Huntingdon's disease - 1.0, A progressive condition that eventually leads from jerky movement through difficulties swallowing and speaking to seizures.
- Cystic Fibrosis - 0.4, A progressive condition in which mucus becomes more sticky leading to digestive and respiratory problems.
- Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy - 0.3, Rapid Loss of muscle tissue and muscle weakness. Mostly found in males.
Some of these disease affect us from early childhood e.g. Cystic Fibrosis, while other have an adult onset e.g. Huntingdon's disease. Either way it is normal to know one or two people who are affected by genetic disease. While they could not have avoided it, they can normally do something to minimise their symptoms by following the best possible lifestyle.
Chronic disease resulting from infectious diseases
Most infections resolve completely after a period of time, some kill, especially in people without robust immune systems. There are others that leave a lasting imprint on their hosts, us. Some of these diseases are well understood while others are not. Throughout time new infectious agents evolve and so the list of diseases changes over time. Some of note are listed below.
- Lyme disease - Most commonly caught from deer tick bites. The bacteria that causes it can often lead to permament arthritis and other problems.
- Rheumatic fever - Caused by streptococcus infections that causes heart and joint problems.
- Tuberculosis - A well known scourge of humanity from ancient times until the mid 20th century. It is still a problem nowadays with increased spread from tropical areas.
- Post viral syndromes. Conditions labelled as Chronic Fatigue and ME may perhaps come into this category in some instances.
- Polio - Many people have had the polio virus, but only a small percentage get any long term symptoms. Most don't even know they've had it. Since the introduction of the oral vaccine in the 1960's very few people suffer from the long term symptoms that include paralysis.
It is worth noting that infectious disease was virtually unknown until 10,000 years ago when man started settling down in farming communities. The close association of man with domestic animals and larger groups of humanity gathered in one place, enabled pathogens to spread more easily.
Chronic disease resulting from lifestyle choices and incidence in the UK
The environment we live in nowadays is drastically different from that which we evolved in. Humanity has been around as a species for about 200,000 years and yet it was only 10,000 years ago that we first settled down into farming communities. The changes in our diet that followed the agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution 200 years ago have caused a massive rise in heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Evidence from DNA analysis of skeletons over 10,000 years ago shows that these 3 major diseases were extremely uncommon in our hunter gatherer forebears. Evidence from the few hunter gatherer tribes left in the wolrd since the beginning of the 20th century also indicate that those over the age of 45 rarely succumb to heart disease and cancer.
- Heart disease - The number 1 killer in the west affects people from middle age onwards. A faulty diet is the main factor leading to this disease that includes strokes, heart attacks and heart failure.
- Osteoporosis - Although it does not appear high up in the mortality statistics it does lead to reduced quality of life, which then substantially increases the risk of other fatal disease.
- Cancer - The number 2 killer in the west is again affected to a large degree by our diet. Some environmental factors are also key players in causing this unpleasant disease.
- Dementia - Possibly the number 3 biggest killer in the west, depending on definition. Once over the age of 85 this is listed as the biggest cause of death in the UK for women2.
- Respiratory failure - The number 4 biggest killer in the west.
Looking directly at the death statistics for the UK one thing soon becomes clear. Don't smoke or drink to excess if you want to live a long healthy life. Yes I know that is obvious, but it really struck me as I moved down the age categories for mortality how the most common cause of death became increasingly related to smoking and alcohol abuse. None of the top 5 leading causes of death age 85+ are particularly related to smoking or alcohol abuse. Move down to the 60-65 age category and suddenly half of the causes of death are very clearly related to smoking and drinking with lung cancer, oesophagal cancer and chronic pulmonary obstruction featuring. Diet can help improve health a huge amount, but if you smoke and drink to excess you are doing more damage to your body than you can recoup even with the best possible diet.
What changes in lifestyle help us avoid chronic disease?
Follow the following rules and for most people, you will not go far wrong.
- Don't smoke. Lung, throat and mouth cancers will be far less likely as well as heart attacks and strokes. You'll also avoid bronchitis and be able to move about without getting breathless.
- Drink in moderation, ie less than 4-8 units at any one time and less than 14-28 units per week (womens figures come first).
- Avoid junk food. Heart attacks and strokes as well as a number of cancers including those of the digestive tract are less likely if you avoid ready meals, fast food outlets and most food in packaging.
- Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Forget 5 a day, if you have a healthy appetite it should be more like 10 per day. This will help reduce the likelihood of cancer and heart disease.
- Avoid too much sweetness. Chocolate bars, sweets, buns, muffins, puddings and cakes all create a sugar rush that for most people leads to problems later in life.
- Cut down on carbohydrates. For most people eating more than 50% of your calories from grains and sweet foods is unneccessary and bad for health. Potato, pasta, rice, cereals and bread are fine in moderation, but the Government is wrong to place them at the base of the food pyramid, implying they should make up most of the diet. Most people should be eating more in the way of vegatables and protein and fat sources.
- Exercise every day with anything from a 30 minute walk to 2-3 hours of intense exercise. However if you do undertake intense exercise make sure you recover well.
1. http://www.geneticalliance.org.uk/education3.htm I used this for a list, but this charity had duplicated classifications and questionable figures. I amended them based on wiki research.
2. Basic Microbiology, Volk and Brown 1997 ISBN 0-673-99560-7
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