Hooray for Uncle Harry!


I can assure you that every practicing doctor in the world has heard about your Uncle Harry who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, drank two bottles of whisky by lunchtime and lived to be 104 and was shot by a jealous husband after being found ‘in flagrante delicto’.  The story of Uncle Harry is trotted out to stymie any thoughts of stopping smoking, or that too much alcohol is really too much of a good thing.

Unfortunately, your unstoppable Uncle Harry means absolutely nothing when we look at health risks from an overall point of view.  Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one Uncle Harry does not prove that smoking isn’t dangerous, or that too many bottles of whisky won’t cause cirrhosis.  That kind of “proof” only comes after looking at large numbers of Uncle Harry’s, and that is done by a special group of people called epidemiologists.

Now the World Health Organization (WHO) has teams of epidemiologists and other health watchers, looking at the spread of disease in the world.  Not just Uncle Harry.  They have a good idea where we’re headed, but much of that depends upon where we (you) are.

The WHO has data to show the major influences and risks to health, with the number 1 global health risk appearing to be Underweight.  Here is the influence of the African continent, with malnutrition and outright starvation influencing statistics.  Again, it is the African continent that has dominated the second major health risk – Unsafe sex.  The HIV/AIDS epidemic in that region, influencing the global statistics.  After those two comes High Blood Pressure and Tobacco and then Alcohol at number five, and so much for Uncle Harry.

However, if you split the statistics up and examine the situation in developing countries, such as much of Asia, the picture is different.  Number 1 health risk is Alcohol, followed by High BP, Tobacco and being underweight.

A close look at the risks for the developed societies (that covers the Europeans, Brits, Americans, Australians) gives yet another differing list with top spot Tobacco, followed by High BP, Alcohol, Cholesterol and being Overweight.

So, depending upon the society, the things that are waiting to get you are quite different.  A WHO report states, “As a country develops and more people buy processed food rather than growing and buying raw ingredients, an increasing proportion of calories tends to be drawn from sugars added to manufactured food and from relatively cheap oils.  Alongside the change in diet, changes in food production and the technology of work and leisure lead to decreases in physical exercise.  The consequent epidemic of diet-related non-communicable diseases (obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease) is projected to increase rapidly.  For example, in India and China, a shift in diet towards higher fat and lower carbohydrate is resulting in rapid increases in overweight – among all adults in China and mainly among urban residents and high income rural residents in India.”  And have you noticed how many overweight Thais there are these days?

An interesting fact comes out of some developing nations, however, where countries have taken it upon themselves to promote a healthier way of life, despite the advent of the high living “western” style economy.  Again, quoting WHO, “The Republic of Korea is an example of a country that has experienced rapid economic growth and the introduction of Western culture since the 1970s.  There were large increases in the consumption of animal food products, and a fall in total cereal intake.  Despite this, national efforts to retain elements of the traditional diet – very high in carbohydrates and vegetables – seem to have maintained low fat consumption and a low prevalence of obesity.

“The Republic of Korea has strong campaigns to promote local foods, emphasizing their higher quality and the need to support local farmers.  A unique training program is offered by the Rural Development Administration.  Since the 1980s, the Rural Living Science Institute has trained thousands of extension workers to provide monthly demonstrations of cooking methods for traditional Korean foods such as rice, kimchi (pickled and fermented Chinese cabbage) and fermented soybean food.”

It’s not too late to look at your diet either!  And put that cigarette out.