Risk of contracting diabetes to increase in world of 7 billion people

November 14, 2011, University of Copenhagen

World citizen number 7 billion is less likely to die from infectious diseases like measles or even AIDS, and more likely to contract diabetes or other non-communicable diseases (NCDs), as they are now the leading causes of deaths globally.

14th of November is official World Diabetes Day. In a world of 7 billion people with changing disease patterns, this day is more relevant than ever, according to external lecturer Siri Tellier from the Copenhagen School of Global at the University of Copenhagen.

"Our new world citizen number 7 billion is more likely to grow up in an urban setting, which increases his or her risk of getting diabetes, as well as (COPD), cancer and heart disease," says Siri Tellier, who teaches demography and health in emergencies, while she also lectures on international perspectives on demographic challenges to Chinese university students in Beijing.

World citizen number 7 billion, who was estimated to be born on 31 October, will face very different diseases than that of children born only a few decades ago. As the population of keeps growing, it rapidly changes the global health challenges.

"Until 2008, the majority of the lived in rural areas, but since then the majority has become urban, and most future will happen in urban areas of developing countries. And one third of them, a little more than one billion, live in urban slums," says Siri Tellier.

A high proportion of people who move to cities are young adults, and this has several implications for health. Among them are the consequences of leaving their parents behind in rural areas.

"Aging parents can no longer depend on their adult children for care. They will often 'live with' chronic NCDs such as diabetes, and will need daily assistance. It's not just a question of the children sending them money from their new home in a big city - who will care for the old people on a daily basis? The household size is shrinking. In rural areas it may be five, in urban areas only two. So in order to meet that challenge, new patterns of caring for older people will be needed," says Siri Tellier.

In the cities of the world, the health challenge is twofold: Firstly, living conditions in slum areas are poor, both with respect to water and sanitation, and access to health care almost non existent. In addition, life in urban areas often entails a shift toward 'modern' life styles, with inadequate nutrition, especially more fatty, salty foods, smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise - all primers for NCDs.

Secondly, when the young newcomers become parents, their own poor health will have influenced the unborn child's predisposition for NCDs.

"Increasing numbers of studies show, that healthy ageing begins in the womb," Siri Tellier continues, and explains that if - for example - children are born with low birth weight, they are more likely to develop diabetes later in life

"Our new world citizen nr. 7 billion will probably grow up in an urban setting, and will face factors that increase his or her risk of diabetes, as well as COPD, cancer and heart disease.

"There is also an increasing awareness of the need to help even healthy, young people gain the habits which will predispose them for health in later life. Parents may have a hard time ensuring that their teenagers develops healthy habits, which will follow him or her throughout life, especially if a lack og these habits do not cause ill health immediately," Siri Tellier points out.

"Of course, the good news is that the child is less likely to die from measles, or even AIDS or diarrhoeal diseases. We have reduced the number of child deaths from around 12 million in 1990 to less than 8 million today, and most of the saved lives are through prevention measures such as vaccinations against infectious diseases. That is not only good news, that is fantastic news." Siri Tellier explains.

Flemming Konradsen, Director of the Copenhagen School of Global Health at the University of Copenhagen, shares this optimistic view, and stresses that we must now deal with the non-communicable diseases as seriously as infectious diseases:

"Global disease patterns are changing. As many countries around the world have reduced the great killers such as malaria, we must turn the same effort and resources towards NCD's, as they must be prevented now rather than treated later.

In addition to the personal consequences for the patient, NCDs burden developing health care systems with such high expenses, that can halt their development if we do not intervene," says Professor Flemming Konradsen.

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