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Obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol health risks now global

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Diseases that once plagued Western countries and wealthy nations have now spread across the globe, including obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol.

Three separate papers published in the Lancet highlight changes in body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol levels between 1980 and 2008, finding obesity has doubled worldwide, uncontrolled hypertension has increased from 600 million in 1980 to nearly 1 billion in 2008 and cholesterol levels are up in East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.

Professor Majid Ezzati, the senior author of the study from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said. "Our results show that overweight and obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are no longer Western problems or problems of wealthy nations. Their presence has shifted towards low and middle income countries, making them global problems."

Highest body mass index globally

Body mass index increased from 4.8 per cent for men and 7.9 per cent for women in 1980 to 9.8 percent of men and 13.8 per cent of women in 2008, with the United States having the highest rates of obesity. The analysis shows in Europe Turkish women and Czech men have the highest body mass index.

Obesity has spread globally and the study authors say interventions are needed in most countries to reduce the associated health risks that accompany high body mass index.

Blood pressure findings

Researchers found the highest rates of blood pressure in high-income countries in Portugal, Finland and Norway. Compared to women, men are more likely to have hypertension, regardless of region. Baltic and East and West African countries have the highest rates of systolic blood pressure, or top number.

Blood pressure levels were lowest in men and women in South Korea, Cambodia, Australia, Canada and USA, something Professor Ezzati says is “heartening” and stems from improved screening and treatment as well as healthier dietary habits that include lower salt and saturated fat intake.

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The analysis suggests interventions to lower blood pressure should be targeted to low-income and middle-income countries where systolic blood pressures were the highest.

Cholesterol levels worldwide

The highest cholesterol levels were found in Western European countries like Greenland, Iceland, Andorra, and Germany. The UK has the ninth highest levels.

In the USA, Canada and Sweden, cholesterol levels were low with African countries having the lowest levels. Greece leads Western countries for low cholesterol levels in both men and women.

The authors concluded cholesterol screening needs improvement in low and middle-income countries and interventions for improving levels in Asian countries are needed.

Dr. Gretchen Stevens, from the World Health Organization, said, “Our study helps track the obesity problem in individual countries and regions. We know that changes in diet and in physical activity have contributed to the worldwide rise in obesity, but it remains unclear which policies would effectively reduce obesity. We need to identify, implement, and rigorously evaluate policy interventions aimed at reversing the trends, or limiting their harmful effects."

Ezzati says now that obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol rates have been identified globally is an “opportunity” to develop policies for healthier diets and screening programs that “should get special attention at the High-level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Non-Communicable Diseases in September 2011." The meeting agenda, according to the World Health Organization is “to prevent and control the 4 noncommunicable diseases — cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases and the 4 shared risk factors — tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and the harmful use of alcohol.

The overall trend seen is improvements in blood pressure and cholesterol levels in high-income western countries from dietary changes that include lower salt intake and less saturated fat. However, obesity rates have more than doubled worldwide since 1980. High blood pressure is targeted as a health risk in Portugal, Finland and Norway. Cholesterol levels are improved in USA, Canada and Sweden since 1980. High cholesterol now plagues Western European countries like Greenland, Iceland, Andorra, and Germany and the UK has the ninth highest levels.