They were nowhere near the front pages but two health-related stories in the Guardian this week – from different parts of the world – gave this reader particular pause for thought. The first warned that China is facing a health emergency in the coming decades from “hidden epidemics’’ of diseases such as cancer, heart trouble and diabetes. The second suggested that 40% of cancer cases in the UK are preventable. In blogs such as Rethinking how we tackle obesity we have argued that we cannot simply carry on as we are when it comes to physical health and wellbeing. Unless we do more to ensure that individuals – including children and young people – adopt healthy lifestyle choices, we will continue to sleepwalk towards disaster.
Projected health outcomes for China in the coming decades are grim. Death rates from non-communicable diseases associated with an affluent lifestyle – and therefore previously seen in high levels primarily in the West – are likely to reach staggering levels by 2050. Lung cancer, linked to high rates of smoking, is high up the list of non-communicable diseases killing milllions, as are diabetes and heart disease, often caused by a combination of a rich diet, low exercise levels and high blood pressure.
And that’s without factoring in chronic ill-health and death linked to pollution, which are also sure to increase unless we change the way we interact with the planet.
China has undergone an incredible economic transformation since the 1980s. It is now the second-biggest economy in the world. Rapid industrialisation has resulted in a massive shift to urban living and in higher wages. Diet and lifestyles have also radically changed.
China now faces health-related challenges familiar to Western societies: a massive increase in lifestyle-related diseases combined with an ageing population, resulting in a health system that struggles to cope and millions of people dying prematurely.
Meanwhile, newly published data shows a significant increase in preventable cancer cases in the UK. Figures released this week by the World Cancer Research Fund show that 387,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2019–20, of which about 155,000 – about 40% – were preventable.
Around 40 per cent of cancers could be prevented through lifestyle changes such as eating healthily, being active, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking. Other ways include avoiding drinking alcohol, eating no more than three portions of red meat a week and little, if any, processed meat, breastfeeding if you can, and being safe in the sun. A healthy diet for cancer prevention consists of a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, and very little junk food including sugary drinks, all of which are part of World Cancer Research Fund’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations.from the WCRF press release, 27 September 2022
Both of these stories – projected health outcomes in China, preventable cancer cases in the UK – underscore the importance of ensuring that individuals adopt healthy lifestyle choices.
Life-Based Learning is an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing – and therefore helping to improve long-term health outcomes and turn around these grim projections – is one such challenge.
Education is vital so that people have the knowledge and skills to make informed individual choices around healthy lifestyles – what to eat, whether to exercise and so on. But it also needs a collective effort, with government driving forward significant changes in how we educate our children and young people. We need to rethink. We need to change our common frame of reference so that healthy lifestyles become an urgent priority.
Image at the head of this article by Markus from Pixabay.