Get Adobe Flash player

China’s economic development sees surge in lifestyle diseases

by Marianne Barriaux*

He Yifan has stayed at a weight loss clinic for more than two months to shed his kilos, one of millions of people in China whose richer lives have led to unwelcome side effects such as obesity.
"Some people (in China) are fat as living standards are quite good now, so people's habits are not the same as they once were," said He, 23, a graduate who reached 157 kilograms while at university.
He is one of 60 people at a weight loss clinic in the northern city of Tianjin, hoping to trim down in an effort to make him more employable, while also trying to avoid longer-term problems such as diabetes and hypertension.
These types of conditions have risen dramatically since China began opening up to the world 30 years ago, a phenomenal economic period that has brought a significant rise in living standards for hundreds of millions of citizens.
But as people have moved away from physically intensive lifestyles on farms and in industrial cities, their more urbanised lives have seen changes in diet and reduced mobility.
In 2002, China had 200 million overweight people and another 60 million who were obese, making up roughly a fifth of the population, according to the latest data from the country's centre for disease control and prevention.
These figures were up 39 and 97 percent respectively from 1992.
And around 160 million Chinese aged 18 or older suffered from hypertension in 2002, a 31 percent rise from 1991.
"There are two big changes in China during a very short period, compared to many other countries," said Hans Troedsson, China representative for the World Health Organisation.
"They're getting an ageing population," said Troedsson, adding that there was also an increase in behaviours that put people's health at risk such as smoking, reduced physical activity and an increase in dietary fats.
Life expectancy in China rose quickly from 1950 to 1990 due to better access to medical care and improved nutrition, but for the following 10 years, it plateaued as chronic diseases emerged, according to a report in medical journal The Lancet.
These illnesses came hand-in-hand with economic development, as people earned more money to buy richer food in larger quantities than before, and put on weight.
"It's typical to use more animal food like meat and dairy products when you have economic development because people can afford it," Troedsson said.
He Yifan explained that a faster pace of life also meant that people ate more convenient, fast food — as evidenced by the huge numbers of McDonald's and KFC chain restaurants that have sprung up throughout China.
"Our parents' lives were calmer than ours, but with the reforms and opening up, the economic development, and more and more new things coming to China, our lives have become more rich and varied," he said.
Economic growth and urbanisation have also led to a more sedentary lifestyle. People now spend longer in front of the television and more own their own vehicles.
Meanwhile, tobacco use and air pollution — the latter brought on by fast industrialisation — are the causes of an increase in lung cancer cases in the country.
The increase in life expectancy, as well as the country's one-child policy, has led to an ageing population that is contributing to the surge in chronic diseases.
"In the early 1980s, less than 10 percent of the population was over 60 years of age, but by 2035, one in every four Chinese will be be older than 60," said Troedsson.
The strong emergence of lifestyle diseases is a big economic problem for China, he said.
"What has been estimated is that over the next 10 years in China, the economic losses for main non-communicable diseases, like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, might be up to 500 billion dollars."
But He, who has already lost 38 kilograms, is determined that these conditions would not affect him.
"My aim is to get to 90 kilos," he said.
"Losing weight is good, it's beneficial for your health and for your future."