herald

Monday 11 December 2017

Niall Hunter: Time to take the ticking timebomb of our chronic health more seriously

It's a ticking timebomb. The number of people in this country suffering from chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart problems and high blood pressure, is set to soar by 40pc over the next 10 years.

Health experts have warned that the increasing disease toll will place a huge burden on our health services and the economy.

As a nation, they warn, we are in danger of becoming less healthy, less happy and less productive.

That's terrible, you might tut-tut, and then go out to light up a cigarette or supersize that fast-food meal. Because that's the problem with these health messages.

We read the headlines but think they don't apply to us and carry on with the type of lifestyle and diet that's making us less healthy.

Some of the predicted increase in people living with serious illness is due to advances in medicine. For example, due to better drugs and other treatments, people are living longer with chronic conditions.

However, a key factor is that we are getting sicker because of the type of lives we lead.

Our smoking rates are still around the 30pc mark; we have one of the highest alcohol consumption rates in Europe and our childhood obesity rates are among the highest in the world.

Worryingly, a crude statistic is that the poorer you are, the more likely it is that you will develop chronic illnesses.

How do we tackle this serious problem?

Experts will argue as to whether the carrot or the stick approach works best. Should you regulate more through wider smoking bans, restrictions on alcohol marketing and promotion, clamping down on junk food advertising or even, by law, reducing portion sizes of luxury and snack foods?

Or should you concentrate on the carrot approach of educating people about better diet and lifestyle choices? Most would agree it is difficult to get the balance right. You cannot have too much of a nanny state telling you how to live your life and, anyway, getting healthier is largely down to personal responsibility.

Getting people to lead healthier lifestyles is perhaps the most difficult task a government or health professionals can face.

A major Government taskforce on tackling obesity published five years ago hit a number of brick walls in terms of trying to improve things. For example, some interest groups -- the food and drinks industries for example -- must be tackled, and then you can have public liability insurance issues in getting more exercise programmes into schools.

But just because it is difficult, it doesn't mean we should give up.

We need to take more individual responsibility for our own health. So the next time you read a headline stating that we are all getting fatter and sicker, ask yourself if this applies to you -- and are you going to do something about it?

Niall Hunter is Editor of irishhealth.com

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