Chronic diseases are defined broadly as conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both. Chronic diseases tend to be of long duration and are the result of a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioral factors.
The main types of chronic diseases are cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attacks and stroke), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma) and diabetes. Chronic diseases disproportionately affect people in low- and middle-income countries, where more than three-quarters of global chronic disease deaths occur.
People at Risk
People of all age groups, regions and countries are affected by chronic diseases. These conditions are often associated with older age groups, but evidence shows that 17 million chronic diseases deaths occur before the age of 70 years. Of these premature deaths, 86% are estimated to occur in low- and middle-income countries. Children, adults and the elderly are all vulnerable to the risk factors contributing to chronic diseases, whether from unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, exposure to tobacco smoke or the harmful use of alcohol.
These diseases are driven by forces that include rapid unplanned urbanization, globalization of unhealthy lifestyles and population ageing. Unhealthy diets and a lack of physical activity may show up in people as raised blood pressure, increased blood glucose, elevated blood lipids and obesity. These are called metabolic risk factors and can lead to cardiovascular disease, the leading chronic diseases in terms of premature deaths.
The Primary Risk Factors
The major risk factors are tobacco use, the harmful use of alcohol, raised blood pressure, physical inactivity, raised cholesterol, overweight/obesity, unhealthy diet and raised blood glucose.
Chronic diseases share common risk factors and conditions. While some risk factors, such as our age, sex, and our genetic make-up, cannot be changed, many behavioral risk factors can be modified, as well as a number of intermediate biological factors including high blood pressure, being overweight or obese, elevated blood lipids and pre-diabetes. Societal, economic and physical conditions influence and shape behavior and indirectly affect other biological factors. The recognition of these common risk factors and conditions is the conceptual basis for an integrated approach to chronic disease.
If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you smoke, get the support you need to quit for good. Quitting smoking lowers your risk of heart disease, lung disease, cancer and other smoking-related illnesses. It’s never too late to quit smoking. Make a quit plan. Making a plan can help you manage stress, urges to smoke and other challenges when trying to quit.
Eat Healthy and Watch your Weight
Good nutrition is essential to staying healthy at any age. Healthy eating prevents obesity – the number one nutritional reason for disease. Obesity is a major risk factor for many conditions, like type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, heart disease and more. Eating foods loaded with sugar, fats and calories can add extra weight to your body, weakening your bones and making your organs work harder. This automatically puts you at a higher risk for health problems down the road.
Certain nutrients affect certain parts of the body. A diet that is high in calcium can help prevent osteoporosis. The same holds true with saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Too much saturated fat in your diet can lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure, two major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Healthy eating improves the mood, which in turn boosts physical activity. Eating the right foods can help you be happier, therefore leading to more bouts of healthy exercise. Healthy diets boost “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein) and decrease unhealthy triglycerides. This directly impacts risk of heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and high blood pressure by helping your blood flow smoothly. The healthier foods you eat, the better your “good” cholesterol levels will be, helping to prevent disease. Incorporating a healthy diet into your lifestyle will automatically reduce your risk for serious, life-threatening diseases.
A healthy eating plan includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products and limits added sugars, saturated fats and sodium.
Choose water over sugary drinks. Focus on whole fruits. Eat a variety of vegetables. Choose whole-grain versions of common foods, such as bread and pasta. Eat a variety of protein foods, such as beans, soy, seafood, lean meats, poultry and unsalted nuts and seeds. Choose low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) dairy. You’ll get the same amount of calcium and other nutrients as whole milk, but with less saturated fat and calories.
Physical activity is one of the best ways you can improve your health now and in the future. Move more and sit less throughout the day. Everyone can get the health benefits of physical activity—no matter their age, abilities, shape, or size. Physical activity is important for people of all ages. Start slowly and add time, frequency, or intensity every week. Walk instead of driving to places nearby. If you drive, park farther away from your destination and walk. Take the stairs instead of escalators or elevators if you’re able and do so as often as possible.
Eat More Fiber
Fiber not only encourages regular bowel movements –reducing your colorectal cancer risk, but it also helps with improving body's insulin response, helping reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. On average you should aim for around 30 grams of fiber per day. This can be achieved not only from your fruit and veg, but whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds as well.
Include Antioxidants and Phytochemicals
Antioxidants and phytochemicals, found in fruits and vegetables, have cancer protective properties, and have also been found to protect against type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Antioxidants are a group of micronutrients namely, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium. Phytochemicals are the biologically active components of plants–like glucosinolates from green leafy vegetables. These substances perform complementary mechanisms in your body, like inducing detoxification genes, preventing oxidative damage and reducing inflammation.
It has been estimated that 10,000 oxidative interactions occur between DNA and endogenously generated free radicals per human cell per day. When there are more free radicals present than can be kept in balance by antioxidants, the free radicals can start doing damage to fatty tissue, DNA, and proteins in your body. The damage can occur at a molecular, cellular or organ level or can affect the whole body. Antioxidants are the Avengers of your body fighting the free radicals and preventing them from taking over! Activate the Avengers of your body by consuming foods rich in antioxidants–like olives, nuts, seeds and fish. They’re good for heart health and help to lower our risk of infections. The more colors you see on your plate the better your chances are of including all your antioxidants and phytonutrients.