It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on people around the world. We witnessed a relentless and indiscriminate spread of the coronavirus across all geographies and age groups. As we scrambled to protect the most vulnerable in society, a conversation began to emerge well in advance of any vaccination development and roll-out: How exactly do we categorise the most vulnerable members of society?
Covid-19, whilst not a noncommunicable disease (NCD), did bring NCDs into the spotlight indirectly. NCDs are the result of a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental, and behavioural factors and generally have a slow progression and long duration. They include cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes.
People suffering from NCDs were massively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic on two fronts. In general, individuals with an underlying health condition fared much worse when contracting the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) called on governments everywhere to tackle NCDs, emphasising that people with NCDs were ‘among the most likely to become severely ill and die’ from Covid-19.
Additionally, the reduction of healthcare services during the pandemic will also be felt for years to come. For example, those with new NCDs needing a diagnosis and treatment. A recent study by the WHO found that coronavirus-related disruptions in healthcare treatments have impacted people with NCDs; among those with cancer, for example, 55 per cent of people have experienced disrupted health services.
The silent killer
According to the WHO, NCDs kill 41 million people each year – that’s 74 per cent of all deaths globally. It’s imperative that we raise awareness of the ‘silent killers’ that are NCDs. I’m using the term ‘silent’ as NCDs attract less attention than infectious diseases and, due to their steady, relentless nature, are accepted by many as matters of fate.
This is a fundamental misinterpretation of the reality, however, since behaviours can influence the risk factors for these diseases. Therefore, although it is possible to have a genetic disposition, some are largely preventable.
The cost of NCDs
NCDs lead to high treatment costs, imposing a direct economic burden on health systems, households, and wider society as a whole. NCDs also impose an indirect economic burden through significant productivity losses through premature mortality, early labour force exits, absenteeism, and work at lowered capacity, said the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
The PAHO also said that it is estimated that over the period 2011–2030, NCDs will cost the global economy more than US$30 trillion, representing 48 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010.
The risk factors
Despite an element of genetic pre-disposition, exposure to external factors has been proven to enhance or mitigate the chances of developing these diseases during lifetime. The main risk factors include:
- Poor diet
- Physical inactivity
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Pollution (such as air, water, soil).
Evidence from the PAHO has shown that as early as during pregnancy, nutritional imbalances, as well as exposure to environmental contaminants, influence the development of NCDs in adolescence and adulthood.
Prevention rather than cure
Allianz Partners’ recent States of Mind report highlights an urgent need to focus on preventative measures – like changes in diet, reducing smoking and alcohol consumption – which lessen the risk of NCDs. It argues that greater patient empowerment is required to improve patient experience and encourage behavioural change. This is where insurers can play a vital role; providing tools and resources to members to combat the rise of NCDs.
But, how can each one of us take responsibility for ourselves and those around us to try and prevent NCDs?
There are 1.13 billion smokers around the world. Half of them will die from a tobacco-related disease, said the NCD Alliance. Tobacco consumption is one of the major risk factors for NCDs, with one in six deaths from NCDs attributable to tobacco. Stopping smoking is easier said than done, but there is help out there. Seek help from a professional and join a smoking support group. Don’t forget to take advantage of your insurer’s wellness offering to avail yourself of additional support.
Unhealthy diets and resulting malnutrition are a major driver of NCDs. Malnutrition includes undernutrition, overweight and obesity, and other diet-related NCDs like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (heart diseases) and stroke, and some cancers, according to the NCD Alliance. Reduce salt intake and consume a diet that is rich in fresh, locally sourced, pesticide-free produce. It’s important that healthy eating is introduced during pregnancy; it’s also vital that both children and adults eat a balanced diet.
Reduce alcohol consumption
Alcohol is one of the major risk factors for a wide array of NCDs like cancer, digestive diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and mental health disorders. Seeking help from a professional, joining a local support group and, as with smoking cessation efforts mentioned above, taking advantage of your insurer’s wellness offering, if available, can all help to reduce alcohol consumption.
During the pandemic, the closure of gyms and restrictions on group exercise and team sports forced many to take a step back from exercise. However, physical activity contributes to preventing and managing NCDs such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes. It improves overall wellbeing, significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, and enhances thinking, learning, and judgment skills according to NCD Alliance. Even a daily walk can make a difference. There are a variety of apps available for tracking physical activity, which can also help.
Make friends and seek support by a professional if you feel you are struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. Insurers also have a role to play here; we need to ensure that our offerings and support are easily accessible to customers, so they can avail themselves of support when needed. For example, all Allianz Partners health insurance policyholders have access to chat buddy and human coaching service, Wysa. The app provides immediate, confidential mental health support at no additional cost.
Early detection and management of NCDs in primary healthcare plays a vital role in patient outcomes. Having a regular check-up at your family doctor helps to ensure early detection of hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes. The NCD Alliance said the increasing severity and number of NCD sufferers underlines the importance of taking a proactive approach to lifestyle illnesses. There’s nothing new about the concept of prevention being better than cure, and with an estimated 80 per cent of NCDs being preventable, prevention needs to take priority.
The pandemic has forced us to think about our health in a way that many, if not most, of us have never had to before. Small, measured changes in lifestyle can have a big impact on our health.
These little changes could truly alter the course of our lives.