Vital Signs: Risk factors for health are not inevitable (Kingston Whig-Standard)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

By Susan Stewart

KINGSTON - As the old saying goes, without health, nothing else matters. It is a resource for everyday living. So how healthy are the residents of Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington (KFL&A)? The recent Canadian Index of Wellbeing survey set out to answer this question. This survey was completed by 1,515 citizens who answered questions on their quality of life, provided thoughtful comments about their own well-being, and shared insights on how to improve health and well-being.

vegetables are part of a healthy dietObesity rates are at an alarming level in Canada, Ontario and in KFL&A. Being overweight or obese is associated with multiple health problems including diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and certain cancers such as breasts, colon and kidney.

The good news is that 67% (+7 %) of respondents perceived their health as excellent or very good and 73% (+7%) perceived their mental health as excellent or very good. As people aged, their physical health decreased but their mental health scores improved. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing also found that those most vulnerable in our community, such as individuals living on a low income, rated their health as poor. Only 25% (+12 %) of this vulnerable group rated their physical health as excellent or very good and 31% (+13%) rated their mental health as excellent or very good. Our goal as a community is to optimize physical and mental health for all of us. So how do we go about making people healthier? If 79% of deaths in Ontario are due to chronic disease, then we need to look at some common risk factors that are threatening the health of those who live in KFL&A. There are four major threats to the physical and mental health and well-being of our community — inactivity, unhealthy eating, alcohol use and tobacco. These risk factors are not inevitable. There is much that individuals and our communities can do to modify these risk factors and reduce their impact on health.

Consider tobacco use as an example. As a community we have made significant changes in our smoking rates and over the past 20 years, there as been a slow but steady decline in tobacco use. Nonetheless, roughly one in five of the adults in KFL&A still smoke. This takes a tremendous cost on the health of individuals, their families and our community. Tobacco causes around 70% of all lung cancers and is associated with cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. It is also associated as a risk factor for lung and heart disease. The City of Kingston recently revised the no-smoking bylaw which now prohibits smoking in certain public places such as parks and beaches, sports fields and playgrounds and within nine metres of an entrance of a municipal building and three metres of a business entrance. This clearly sets a community standard and demonstrates a commitment to protecting the health and well-being of its citizens. It is well recognized that smoking is a very difficult and complex addiction and further work needs to be done to prevent youth from starting, protecting everyone from the dangerous effects of second-hand smoke and providing effective smoking cessation services to assist those who want to quit.

Obesity rates are at an alarming level in Canada, Ontario and in KFL&A. Being overweight or obese is associated with multiple health problems including diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and certain cancers such as breasts, colon and kidney. Small changes in physical activity for those in this group can have significant benefit. In fact, becoming more active will benefit everyone. Thanks to technology, our society has managed to engineer physical activity from our daily lives. The convenience of items such as cars, laundry machines, remote controls and escalators has made physical activity less and less necessary. Entertainment such as televisions, computers, and smart phones has made physical activity less and less interesting. However, community partners have done significant work to get our community more active. Bike lanes, hiking trails, and active transportation investments are helping to make physical activity easier and allowing individuals to make it part of their every day living. But there is more work to be done. As a community we should review the lessons learned from tobacco control and start to apply them to the obesity epidemic. Like tobacco, we need to look at policy (for example, banning the advertising of unhealthy food to children) and creating supportive environments (for example, banning the sale of sweetened beverages at places where children play and learn). It will take the work of the whole community to make our residents more active — an investment in health and well-being that is well worth making.

If we do not invest in health and change the underlying risk factors of chronic disease (inactivity, unhealthy eating, and alcohol and tobacco use), we will be spending more and more of our precious health care dollars on managing and treating chronic disease. With an aging population that is living longer, treating chronic disease will become too expensive. It is not a sustainable approach to health, which means that we need to invest in health promotion and disease prevention. This means that we need to change legislation, address policy, and create supportive environments that promote health.

We have done significant work in our communities to address and improve health for all. But there is more to be done. We must continue to measure the health of our communities to ensure that our efforts to improve health are making a difference. We must also continue this work to build supportive environments so that the healthy choice is always the easy choice.

Thanks to all of those in our community who completed the Canadian Index of Wellbeing survey. We should continue to use the results of this survey to guide policy change at a local level and to ensure health and wellbeing for all.

Susan Stewart is the director of the Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Division for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health.

Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) note: This year, the Kingston Vital Signs report featured results from the CIW Community Wellbeing Survey conducted earlier in 2013 in Kingston and area.

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