China’s chronic illnesses are another Western export

To the Daily:

The Associated Press story in last Thursday’s Daily (Most middle-aged Chinese die from heart disease, cancer, 09/15/2005) reported that heart disease, cancer and stroke are the leading causes of death among middle-aged Chinese adults, indicating that chronic illnesses burden not only wealthy, industrialized nations, but also developing ones. Common contributors include high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, physical inactivity and obesity. This shift to chronic disease is strongly correlated with lifestyle and behavior-changes that often result from industrialization.

In the article, World Health Organization director Robert Beaglehole urged China to “learn from the struggles of wealthier countries” in combating chronic illnesses. Yet, it was precisely from these wealthier nations that China “learned” of the fabulous Western life and pursued it through materialism and the adoption of Western habits. In our own battle against obesity and other perils of industrialization, we must remember the interconnectedness of global health and how our actions affect other countries.

I traveled to China with a group of health professionals and students two summers ago and gave a presentation about the importance of healthy diets and exercise to local high school students. Our benevolence, however, was met by skepticism: “How are you lecturing us to avoid fast food when you (Americans) brought McDonalds to China in the first place?”

Industrialization leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, which, in turn, results in chronic health problems. As globalization continues, we must be mindful of our influential power as Americans. It is imperative that we reflect on how “diseases of civilization” have affected us in this country and strive to resolve the health problems to set an example for other nations to follow.

Alice Zheng

School of Public Health

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