The way we live is making us ill, and it’s only getting worse. While research works busily to slow the spread of disease, we also desperately need to prevent the onset of non-communicable diseases brought on by lifestyle – those linked to our diets, physical activity and habits like smoking. They are both costing us and killing us, and are only on the rise. The question of who will lead this effort, especially, needs answering now.
(deviantART / debussy01247)
Life is becoming increasingly dangerous. In some ways, it has never been more comfortable than it is today, but we’re falling victim to our modern lifestyles and the price to pay is rising. In 2012, for example, the global cost of treating diabetes—closely linked to obesity—came to $471 billion, according to Massoud Toussi, Medical Director at IMS Health France, speaking at the recent Biovision life sciences conference. Around the world, 371 million people have the disease, and the number is increasing in every country. Far from limited to wealthier regions, low- and middle-income countries may see 70% of the predicted increase in these non-communicable diseases, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
A Biovision session gathering researchers, policy makers, and industry leaders examined what hope exists to counter the current trend, asking “Can we avoid lifestyle diseases – individually or collectively?” In this universal context of inflating numbers, treatment of many diseases needs to be redesigned. As Philippe Monteyne, Vice President of R&D at Sanofi France, put it, all the low-hanging fruit, the easy solutions in pill form are gone. This leaves the door open, though, for “more complex, but more efficient approaches” to be found. For example, in an earlier session, Serge Rezzi, a researcher with Nestlé, called for a holistic approach to diabetes treatment. This would examine the disease in the more complete context of multiple body systems. The same holds true for other diseases with a lifestyle element: metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, stroke…
Prevention, from the top
The various speakers made it clear, however, that the key to controlling the growth of problems associated with our way of life is prevention. Cardiologist and health consultant Marc Salomon pointed out that it’s a question of shifting where we invest. “We pay for health already. The way forward is to pay less for treatment and hospitals, and more for prevention.” Session moderator Olivier Raynaud, of the World Economic Forum, added that “we’ll need trillions to be put in place in the healthcare system if we don’t work on prevention of these lifestyle diseases.”
Who should take charge of a global movement towards avoiding these conditions needs to be clarified, and fast. Cary Adams, who leads the Union for International Cancer Control, is convinced that the UN has a fundamental role to play. He cites the success of the 2001 UN General Assembly Special Session dedicated to HIV/AIDS in galvanizing the world around that cause. But, he cautions, they can only do it if the effort includes all UN institutions, with the WHO in a technical role, operating within a framework involving academia, civil society and private enterprise. “We cannot rely on science or the UN or corporate players alone. We must bring them all together, realize they have different reasons for being at that table and find common ground. That’s why the coordinating mechanism of the UN is so important.”
Sushila Chang, a researcher now serving on the Board of Trustees of the Singapore University of Technology and Design, puts responsibility on heads of state. Just as CEOs’ “heads would roll” if Occupational Health and Safety inspections found a problem in their company, so our nations’ leaders must take responsibility for what happens on their watch.
Firm guidance at the highest level seems a necessary condition to transform lifestyles around the globe, and the best place to start. It will never be sufficient, though. A holistic approach—both on the level of a single patient’s treatment and in terms of healthcare the world over—is likely the only way to turn back the tide of lifestyles that do us more harm than good. That means patients themselves must be actively engaged in their own health. The Biovision speakers had concrete views on how to make this happen, too – coming soon in Part 2 of this subject.
To find out more:
Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, The Lancet, 31 December 2012
Lifestyle-linked diseases continue to increase globally