Obesity, chronic diseases are catching Nepalis young as lifestyles changeNon-communicable diseases, which would earlier be diagnosed mostly among 60-70-year-olds, are now being seen in youths as young as 25. Doctors warn the diseases could lead to a public health crisis.
A 16-year-old boy, who is currently preparing for the Secondary Education Examination, weighs 109 kg. His parents, worried about his weight, got him admitted to a gym. That didn’t work since he leaves for school early in the morning and returns home late in the afternoon.
“Since he is in a higher grade, the school has started special coaching classes in the morning,” said Dr Sudha Shree Adhikari, a nutrition scientist. “The boy did not ever get to play or do physical exercises. There is no open space in the community for the children to play. On top of that, processed and junk food worsened his health.”
This is a common refrain among households in cities, at a time obesity has emerged as a major public health problem. And the issue is not only of childhood obesity but of several non-communicable diseases caused by changes in lifestyle and eating habits.
Nutrition scientists as well as doctors warn that obesity and non-communicable diseases—hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, among others—could lead to a public health crisis if not immediately addressed. They blame sedentary lifestyle, and consumption of processed foods as the main culprits.
“People from all walks of life have been affected by the repercussions of our changing lifestyle and food habits,” said Dr Om Murti, an interventional cardiologist. “The entire family suffers if any of its members or the breadwinner has serious health problems.”
Every doctor and nutritionist the Post talked to said cases of non-communicable diseases have been rising alarmingly of late. They reported several serious cases of non-communicable diseases.
“These days, even relatively young people are not immune to these problems,” said Anil.
A few months ago, a 35-year-old man from Kathmandu visited Dr Anil in his private clinic. The man, who is a bank employee, complained of a light headache. Tests show that he is hypertensive, has high cholesterol, borderline blood sugar level, and is overweight.
He also used to smoke regularly and drink occasionally. He loved to eat momo, chowmein, and other processed foods at restaurants, and the family would dine out once a while.
The man used to work all day at the bank, stayed up till late at night and would not do any physical exercise. He was prescribed medicines to control the blood pressure and cholesterol as he had a high risk of stroke and heart attack.
“After the diagnosis, the man changed his lifestyle, stopped eating at hotels and restaurants, and started exercising,” said Anil. “I recently stopped his cholesterol medicine and reduced the doses of blood pressure medicine. This shows that use of medicines can be stopped, and risk can be lessened by changing our lifestyle and eating habits.”
Studies also show that blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels are going up among Nepalis due to sedentary lifestyles.
A 2019 study on the prevalence of non-communicable disease by the Nepal Health Research Council found that non-communicable diseases accounted for 71 percent of deaths in the country.
The study shows that hypertension, diabetes, renal malfunction, liver problems, heart issues, and cervical cancer are responsible for the majority of morbidity and mortality in Nepal.
The study was primarily focused on behavioural risk factors including tobacco and alcohol consumption, and biological risk factors—raised blood pressure, heavy weight, obesity, abnormal lipid prevalence, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes.
Change in dietary patterns and increased consumption of processed foods exacerbated the problems, the study found.
The findings suggested the leading risk factor of deaths in 2019 was smoking, whose attributable death was 17.7 percent, followed by high systolic blood pressure (12.3 percent), and diabetes (8 percent), besides high cholesterol, kidney dysfunction, among others.
Public health experts say the increase in the burden of non-communicable diseases is a global phenomenon but developing countries like Nepal face a double whammy.
A report of the Nepal STEP survey-2019 on non-communicable disease risk factors jointly carried out by the World Health Organisation, the Ministry of Health and Population and the Nepal Health Research Council also revealed alarming signs on a number of issues—growing consumption of alcohol, tobacco, salt and junk food, and insufficient intake of vegetable and fruits—that lead to cardiovascular diseases.
Experts say the rise in non-communicable diseases not only affects a particular family but entire society and also impacts national progress.
A few weeks ago Dr Aruna Uprety, a public health expert, and her friends organised a get-together of college friends of their batch. Out of 200 students only 40 attended the gathering.
“We found 11 of our colleagues had already died and nine of them succumbed to non-communicable diseases,” said Uprety. “I am the only one of my batch of 1976, who is not taking medicine for any non-communicable disease.”
Uprety is 63 years old now.
Again, it is not just people of her age who have been suffering from lifestyle-related ailments but also their children and grandchildren.
A lot of young women have infertility-related problems due to obesity, diabetes and hypothyroidism, and small children suffer from both malnutrition and obesity, according to Uprety.
Doctors say non-communicable diseases, which would earlier be diagnosed mostly among the 60-70 age bracket, are now being seen in people as young as 25. Youths are living with high blood pressure, fatty liver and diabetes.
“Before things get worse, we as a country should take measures to cut the growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases, which are caused mainly by changing lifestyles,” said Uprety.