Lifestyle diseases are on the rise – and could have serious repercussions for your clients, writes Debra Hale
Lifestyle diseases could be considered a result of our own success. The developed economic world that we live in has led to significant improvements in lifestyle, but at the same time this has put us at greater risk of so-called lifestyle diseases, civilisation diseases or longevity diseases.
The difference in health issues between eastern and western nations is striking. In the developed western world, people are more likely to consume a lot of meat, dairy products, alcohol, sugary foods and sugary drinks.
Westerners generally aren’t as active as those in less developed countries and our sedentary lifestyles therefore increase obesity rates. High obesity rates equal higher rates of heart disease and other illnesses related to obesity.
Dietary changes have made us more susceptible to certain cancers such as prostate cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer and endometrial cancer.
By contrast, people living in developing countries in the east consume foods that are low in sugar and high in starch with little quantities of meat. As a result, cancer rates are much lower in these nations.
What are lifestyle diseases?
Lifestyle-related illnesses now look very different to how they looked in the UK 100 years ago. In 1900 it would have been far more common to suffer with diseases such as
tuberculosis or cholera rather than diabetes or liver disease and much more likely to die from influenza or diarrhoea than to die from cancer or heart disease.
Back then, sadly over a third of deaths occurred in the under fives and only 13% occurred over the age of 75. A century later, deaths in the under fives thankfully account for less than 1% and 65% of deaths now occur in those aged over 75.
Life expectancy, of course, has also improved drastically, rising from the mid-40s to over 80 these days.
I’ve previously written articles on dementia, liver disease, diabetes and mental illness – all of which are more relative to the current UK demographic and all of which can be lifestyle related.
This month I am going to focus on one lifestyle disease that’s been around for years, way before the 1900s but it’s still causing us issues now.
Often associated with Henry VIII, the overweight middle-aged male who enjoys good wine and rich food, gout isn’t always taken as seriously as it should, but is actually an extremely painful and often debilitating illness. Gout can cause joint deformity and impair movement so some sufferers can become quite immobile, so it’s definitely not a laughing matter.
Gout is a type of arthritis, caused by a build-up of uric acid or urate in the blood. This acid is meant to pass through the blood and out via the kidneys. When the body cannot flush out the crystals of sodium urate it can form inside the joints and result in severe pain and inflammation – normally in the big toe, but it could affect any joint.
Uric acid is produced from the breakdown of purines, a natural chemical that is found in the body but is also present in many foods and drinks.
Who is at risk?
You’re probably thinking: ‘Why on earth is she writing an article on gout – it can’t be that serious a condition in the UK?’ The thing is, gout is just one of a number of lifestyle-related illnesses that are on the rise in the UK.
As with most lifestyle-related illnesses, gout is more common in overweight people and those who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
The ageing population and the growing obesity problem across age groups in the UK mean that more and more are being diagnosed with gout. The north-east and Wales report the highest rates.
Recently, I’ve heard it referred to as the ‘McDonald’s disease’ and these days a much younger section of the UK population is experiencing it.
Eating too many burgers is not the sole cause though – an unhealthy lifestyle in general is the main factor. A diet high in red meat is a major contributing factor, but excessive consumption of other purine containing foods and drinks such as liver, seafood, beer, spirits and sugar-sweetened items contribute too.
Other causes of gout include kidney disease, exposure to lead, hypothyroidism, severe illness or stress, and extreme physical exertion.
It’s not just men who are susceptible – women suffer with it too although it is four times more common in men.
Some may need medication to combat the illness, but the condition can be managed through changes in lifestyle, like losing weight or changing diet and drinking habits.
Gout has other associated health issues that are affecting your clients. Kidney problems can sometimes be a result of gout, so this often humoured illness can be very serious.
Kidney stones result from uric acid crystals deposited in the kidneys – they are extremely painful and can cause permanent kidney damage which can then lead to chronic kidney disease and even kidney failure.
What can you do?
As with all lifestyle related illnesses, we can make changes to reduce the risks. Making changes to diet, losing weight, exercising more, drinking less alcohol, drinking more water, stopping smoking – we know what we have to do to make the world we live in a healthier place.
Making sure your clients have got the right cover in place has never been more relevant when we are talking lifestyle illnesses.
Our underwriters regularly change their stances when it comes to these topical conditions. Many of your clients will be overweight and/or have unhealthy lifestyles so it pays to recommend a provider that can underwrite in a pragmatic manner and give your clients the cover that they absolutely need.
is a protection specialist at Zurich