Another prime example of how the lifestyle choices a human population makes affect their personal evolution are the modern conditions known as “diseases of affluence.”
While the assumption is that increased luxury, wealth, and conveniences result in a better quality of life, this is apparently not the case. The term “diseases of affluence” has been given to the range of health conditions that have increased in recent years, especially in large cities.
Many individuals in modern nations live sedentary lifestyles and eat a convenient modern diet. In fact, today’s technology makes it possible to have a full career from a single desk or even from home. And while exercise machines allow the fitness enthusiast to imagine they are running over hills or biking outside, they do not provide the beneficial air and sunshine that caps off the experience.
What about food? Simple—many of the needs for bodily and mental fuel come from sugary stimulants in large-sized cups and unhealthy takeout food. But an individual can’t live in modern society and not make some sacrifices, right?
Wrong. Lifestyles and food choices greatly affect human health and have been linked to increased rates of diseases of the heart, lungs, vital organs, and other non communicable diseases (NCDs). Unlike infectious diseases, these are non-transmissible, last for long periods of time, and progress slowly.
Some of the most common conditions linked to lifestyle choices, socioeconomic status, and modernization include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, strokes, and some types of cancer.1
In addition to the effects of modern society on physiological health, researchers have noted the negative effects of cities on mental health. Studies have shown that rates of mental health disorders are significantly higher in cities.2
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Additionally, psychology experts note that children from affluent societies suffer from lifestyle demands, social stigma, and the imperative to succeed at all costs. These individuals are at greater risk of feeling isolated, which can lead to greater susceptibility to substance abuse, anxiety, and depression.3
It is also important to mention that many of the common diseases in Western society are rare or nonexistent in communities with little to no Western influence, such as from Western media or globalization of fast food chains. This means that the increase in rates of diseases of affluence is directly related to aspects of the Western lifestyle.4
What Causes Diseases of Affluence?
Many factors contribute to some of the chronic health conditions linked to life in a modern society. Nevertheless, there is plenty of speculation on the subject, and some of the key hypotheses about the causes of diseases of affluence are highlighted below.
Lack of Physical Exercise
Today, we cover great distances and even circle the world without even really moving our bodies. Furthermore, most professional careers include little physical activity. This lack of physical exercise is unnatural to the human body, which requires a balance of exercise, a healthy diet, and proper rest for optimal function.
Unhealthy Food Options
After hundreds of years of carefully storing grains, facing starvation in the winter, and studying agriculture until it became a fine science, humans now have more than enough to eat. In fact, greater quantities of food are available than ever before at virtually no cost.
For example, a McDonald’s extra value meal with a Big Mac, medium french fries (or salad), and a medium soft drink is only six dollars, while packing in 1,123 calories—about half of the calorie intake for the average individual in addition to high levels of saturated fat and sugar.
Furthermore, consider the physical exertion required to obtain large amounts of foods: slipping into the car, going to the drive thru, and driving back—so, little to none. This, of course, is different from the physical activity required to obtain food when humans were hunters and gatherers or even during the Agricultural Revolution.
Then, obtaining food was a reward received after hours of labor, and the calories consumed were equivalent to the calories burned. Today, humans pack in thousands of calories all while burning less than a hundred.
Additionally, many of today’s most commonly-consumed foods are mass-produced or heavily processed to maintain cost-effective practices for manufacturers and and the advent of a quick, easy meal for consumers.
All in all, the quality of food has decreased, and quantity of food consumed has increased. The rest is history, or rather, the reality of rising obesity rates and the development of diseases of affluence that society now faces.
Poor Air Quality
Though mostly unnoticed, air quality plays an important role in overall well-being.
Paleopathological records show that air pollution, at least in the form of regular smoke, affected humans in the past. However, humans has never been exposed to the high concentration of particulate matter air pollution that exists in modern cities today.
Furthermore, most urban dwellers suffer from a deficiency of the beneficial elements found in clean air that can help offset the toxic intake.5
Longer Life Spans
Modern medicine has extended the length of human life. Because of this, some of the chronic conditions in the modern may be a result of not only lifestyles, but also the result of old age. These could not have been experienced in the past when humans lived for a significantly shorter period of time.6
How Are Diseases of Affluence Affecting Society?
Whereas the last century was characterized by medical triumphs against malaria and other communicable diseases, the new millennium now faces the diseases of modern lifestyles.
Highlighted below are some of the statistics collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) underscoring the effects of diseases of affluence on global health.7
Statistics on Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)
- CVD has become the leading cause of death internationally.
- In 2015, the death toll for CVD rose to 17.7 million or 31 percent of the total number of international deaths. Out of this total, 6.7 million deaths were caused by stroke and the remaining 7.4 million were caused by coronary conditions.
- Premature deaths— those that occur before the age of 70—are of special interest to WHO. In 2015, there were 17 million premature deaths due to NCDs, 37 percent of which were caused by CVD.
Statistics on Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs)
- NCDs have become the leading cause of premature death in the world. These are becoming increasingly prevalent in low to middle class societies where 97 percent of premature deaths take place.
- The deadliest NCDs include respiratory conditions, diabetes mellitus, cancer, and CVD, which makeup 81 percent of all NCD deaths.
- The global health threat of NCDs is expected to increase 17 percent by 2025.
- According to a 2011 press release from WHO, NCDs cost billions for national incomes and have the potential to push individuals below the poverty line.
Solutions to Diseases of Affluence
Diseases of affluence pose a serious threat to modern societies—not only because of their effects on health but because of their economic implications for affected nations and individuals.
Naturally, addressing diet and exercise is one of the best ways to avoid a majority of the conditions characterized as diseases of affluence, more specifically CVD and NCDs.
There is simply no better way to maintain heart health, reduce the risks of type 2 diabetes, and maintain healthy blood pressure than by exercising regularly. According to a recent study, regular exercise is safe, and even recommended for those recovering from heart conditions as part of recovery and preventative therapy.8
Of course, the results of a regular exercise program must be supplemented with a healthy diet. In addition to the physical improvements that come from a balanced diet and regular exercise, there is a lot more to be enjoyed by getting outside for some fresh air and sunshine.
On a city-wide scale, reducing the intake of toxins absorbed through the lungs is another important preventative measure against diseases of affluence. Thus, improving air quality in cities has become more of a priority in recent years.
An article called from the Journal of Urban Health laid out a series of changes they believe should be implemented to improve public health.9
The discussion provided a new definition of the term “health,” broadening its meaning to include conditions of mental, political, social, and spiritual health, in addition to a good standard of physical health. The following are the features they listed as most important in a healthy, modern environment:
- High-quality physical environment
- Balanced ecosystem that is sustainable in the long-term
- Mutually-supportive community
- High level of control over personal life and happiness
- Access to a variety of healthy basic needs including fresh, uncontaminated water, quality air, and nutritious food
- A strong connection with the city’s cultural and biological heritage and many opportunities to connect with these stabilizing elements
- Unlimited access to proper health care and physical health services including recreational parks and sports centers
The list goes on to include other elements like social and financial stability in a community. However, it is clear that the majority of the features listed directly benefit the mental and physical health of the residents through improvement in the air they breathe and the food they eat.
As seen from the statistics and list above, the lifestyles of many city dwellers are far below what is considered “healthy.” Additionally, it is clear that this is becoming an issue of large concern. After all, consequences of CVDs are the leading cause of death in the United States—what could be more significant than that?
Because of globalization, as countries around the world begin to accept Western diets, habits, and lifestyles into their cultures, these same consequences loom ominously in their futures.
Experts expect that if changes are not made, on both an individual and social level, rates of CVD, NCDs, and mental health disorders will continue to increase in the future.
While the policies set in place by urban planners and government agencies can mitigate the harshness of this impact, they will need to be implemented immediately to avoid serious consequences. Furthermore, it is important that individuals make the changes in their own lives that put them on the path towards health and distance them from the risk of developing diseases of affluence in the future.