Philip Stevens looks into the growth of chronic diseases in developing countries and argues that these diseases are actually evidence of economic growth and rising standards of living in these regions. As the economies of developing nations grow, their citizens become more prone to the diseases of affluence, like heart disease:
But before we start wringing our hands in despair and banning everything from fizzy drinks to video games, these figures should be studied more carefully. The fact is, the rise of chronic disease in developing countries is largely down to more and more people living beyond middle age. In China in 2000, just seven per cent of the population were over 65. That figure is predicted to rise to 20 per cent by 2040.
Cancers, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are diseases not normally associated with youth, but with late middle and old age. It is hardly surprising that countries such as China and India undergoing a demographic shift towards older populations should experience an upsurge in these illnesses.
In fact, this change of the disease profile is an inevitable part of the transition from an agrarian economy to a more industrialised economy. In an agrarian economy, life is nasty, brutish and short. Back-breaking labour, unsanitary living conditions and poor nutrition ensure that only the hardiest make it past middle-age.
Chronic malnutrition, starvation, disease and early death have been the lot of humanity for nearly our entire history. It was only after the advent of the agricultural and industrial revolutions in 18th century northern Europe that rising incomes and improving technologies allowed people to improve their health and live longer. Consider that the average medieval Englishman was unlikely to live beyond the age of thirty—now average life expectancy is around 78 years.
As technology and wealth begin to filter out to previously impoverished parts of the globe, we can see this phenomenon repeating itself. This is most striking in emerging economies like India and China, which have witnessed remarkable improvements in life expectancy in recent decades.