Rise of technology contributing to diabetes, obesity in developing world

With the rise of television sets, computers and cars, the waistlines and long-term health of those in the developing world may be taking a turn for the worse.
With the rise of television sets, computers and cars, the waistlines and long-term health of those in the developing world may be taking a turn for the worse. (AP Photo/Copyright The SARTRE Project)

TORONTO — With the rise of television sets, computers and cars, the waistlines and long-term health of those in the developing world may be taking a turn for the worse.

They’re everyday household devices in Canadian homes, but they’re only starting to become available and affordable to low-income countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.  A new international study led by Canadian doctors suggests that the ushering in of these devices is linked to a growing pandemic of chronic diseases, especially obesity and diabetes.

Well-off countries like Canada and Sweden may not see any spikes in chronic disease as more technology gets into our hands, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in other parts of the world.

“With the increasing uptake of modern-day conveniences…low and middle income countries could see the same obesity and diabetes rates as in high income countries that are a result of too much sitting, less physical activity and increased consumption of calories,” lead author Dr. Scott Lear told Global News.

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Lear is a professor at Simon Fraser University and Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation chair in cardiovascular prevention research at St. Paul’s Hospital.

His study, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, was worked on in collaboration with researchers from several countries. Some 154,000 people around the world were studied from 17 different nations for up to 12 years. About 10,000 Canadians from Vancouver, Ottawa, Quebec and Hamilton, Ont. were included.

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The study’s subjects were asked about their medical history, physical activity, their daily eating habits and their height and weight were recorded. Blood samples were taken and the researchers also asked their subjects about their household environment — did they have cars, televisions or computers? Every three years, the doctors followed up with the participants in their country.

Results showed that there seemed to be no correlation between the number of devices in a home and the rate of diabetes, obesity and other conditions like heart disease in high-income countries. That wasn’t the case as the nations became poorer and poorer, though.

Obesity, for example, climbed from a 3.4 per cent prevalence if there were no devices in the home, to 14.5 per cent for three devices. Similar findings were documented in diabetes in low-income countries.

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In low-income countries, owning three devices was associated with a 31 per cent decrease in time spent doing physical activity, a 21 per cent increase in time spent sitting and a nine-centimetre increase in waist size compared to their peers who didn’t have TV, computers or cars.

But Lear wants to be clear: “The devices themselves don’t cause obesity and diabetes, it’s how it most likely affects behaviour — less physical acitivty, sitting more and eating more, and it also affects diet,” he said. (Research has suggested that you eat more when you watch TV, Lear notes.)

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So why wasn’t there an increase in disease in first world nations? Lear suggests that our countries have already seen the dramatic climb in weight gain and lack of exercise decades ago when we were first introduced to these forms of technology.

“With the lower income countries this is very new so the impact that they’re having is occurring right now whereas the impact of exposure in higher income countries happened much earlier,” Lear said.

“We’re reaching a balancing point.”

The trouble is, the rate of obesity and diabetes in the developing world is growing faster than it did in well-off nations decades ago.  And when health bodies — like the World Health Organization — warn about global health epidemics, for the most part, they’re referring to these poor nations that represent a majority of the global population.

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These nations don’t necessarily have the infrastructure, experience and resources to care for chronic illness, either.

“They’re going to have these countries dealing with two ends of the spectrum — under-nutrition and over-nutrition, too,” Lear said. They’ll also still be tackling infectious diseases that countries like Canada can manage with ease.

Researchers are taking a closer look at the obesity pandemic that’s gripping much of the developing world – regions like China, India, Mexico, Brazil, much of the Middle East and South Africa.

READ MORE: What one woman in Gabon taught doctors about global obesity

It’s been coined nutrition transition – this overwhelming shift in diet and physical activity.

Global citizens are switching their physical labour for sedentary jobs and fast food corporations are swiftly tapping into new markets offering consumers a plethora of food they haven’t had access to before.

In Lear’s study, technology also seems to be playing a part.

But Lear says that public messaging can’t tell people to stop using technology, what has to be relayed is a reminder about exercise and how “sitting disease” is a legitimate concern.

His next step is to look at the communities involved in the study. In India, for example, recommending exercise could be tricky: there may not necessarily be sidewalks for pedestrians to walk or jog. In some nations, fresh food may be available but it isn’t affordable.

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Read the full study here.

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