It seems logical that a country’s rising wealth would lead to better health indicators. But the truth is that as incomes rise, obesity and other chronic diseases increase right along with them.
A recent article in the medical journal Lancet claims China’s rising rate of chronic disease is creating a “health and economic time bomb” that could offset much of the country’s economic gains. As China has grown wealthier, a combination of easy access to high-fat food, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and a large number of smokers has contributed to the rapid increase in obesity and its comorbidities, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
In 1973, hypertension, heart disease and stroke caused fewer than half of all deaths in China. Today, these diseases are responsible for three out of every four deaths. The country's economic losses to chronic disease will reach $558 billion by 2015, according to the World Health Organization.
China is not the only place experiencing this rising-income, failing-health phenomenon. Countries of all income levels are all seeing chronic disease skyrocket. But in transitioning economies, this increase in chronic disease is creating a terrible paradox: simultaneous afflicitons of “diseases of the affluent" and diseases linked to extreme poverty. It's a "double burden," says the WHO, that's exacerbated by “inadequate pre-natal, infant and young child nutrition followed by exposure to high-fat, energy-dense, micronutrient-poor foods and lack of physical activity.”
The Lancet report urges China to promote preventive health to lower chronic-disease rates. They call for campaigns to persuade people to consume less salt, stop smoking and exercise more frequently. But if the WHO is right about pre-natal and childhood nutrition being to blame, Chinese health officials will need to focus on more than the adults' own habits. Making sure pregnant mothers and families with small kids practice good nutrition habits may be the only way to guarantee a healthier future.