The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a number of targets for reducing so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 25 per cent by 2025. NCDs are chronic illnesses largely caused by dietary and lifestyle factors. They include obesity, heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancers and chronic respiratory illnesses that, combined, have become the leading causes of death globally, according to the agency.
Chronic diseases account for 36 million deaths annually, over 60 per cent of the human mortality rate. They continue to accelerate globally and are advancing across all regions, affecting all socioeconomic classes. It is expected that almost three-quarters of all deaths will be caused by chronic diseases by 2020.
Chronic diseases are defined as illnesses of long duration and generally slow progression. They are also considered to be largely preventable by positive dietary and lifestyle changes.
One of the leading causes is obesity which has doubled worldwide since 1980. Weight problems are the fifth leading risk factor for all deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result from being overweight. In addition, 44 per cent of diabetes rates, 23 per cent of heart disease rates and up to 41 per cent of cancer rates are attributable to weight problems. Obesity is now linked to more deaths worldwide than being underweight.
Especially worrisome is the continuing rise of childhood obesity. In 2010, more than 40 million children under the age of five(!) were overweight. Almost 35 million of these people live in developing countries. Most impoverished children who have weight problems are also severely malnourished.
Leading causes of unhealthy weight gain are poor diets based on energy-dense foods that are high in fat, salt and sugars, but low in nutrients. A worldwide decrease in physical activity due to sedentary lifestyles, increasing urbanization and changing modes of work and transportation also plays a role.
To change the current trends, improvements must take place on several levels, according to WHO recommendations, including individual responsibility, education, social environments as well as quality and affordability of food supply. "Individual responsibility can only have its full effect where people have access to a healthy lifestyle. Supportive environments and communities are fundamental in shaping people's choices. The food industry can play a significant role in promoting healthy diets by reducing fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods, ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all customers and by practicing responsible marketing."
The WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, which was first introduced by the World Health Assembly in 2004, calls for actions needed to support healthy eating habits and regular physical activity. The agency "calls upon all stakeholders to take action at global, regional and local levels to improve diets and physical activity patterns at the population level." For this, an action plan was developed for the prevention and control of NCDs as a roadmap to establish and strengthen more initiatives on local, national and international platforms.
Although the targets set by the WHO are not binding and specificity in many ways, similar initiatives have shown some degree of effectiveness in the past. For instance in 1987, the World Health Assembly created the first "World No Tobacco Day" to draw global attention to the health effects of smoking. It is commemorated every year on May 31 as an occasion to help reduce worldwide tobacco use. In 2005, the agency released the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control with similar goals.
Tobacco use is still the second most common cause of death in the world (after hypertension) being responsible for killing one in 10 adults every year. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but progress has been made. Hopefully, WHO's continuing efforts will increase awareness of the seriousness of chronic diseases as well.