Tue | Oct 17, 2017

Editorial | A slow waddle to longer life expectancy

Published:Sunday | July 9, 2017 | 12:00 AM

A Jamaican born today can expect, on average, to live nearly five years, or seven per cent longer, than 50 years ago.

The extension, since 1970, has pushed life expectancy from 67.5 years to 72.2 years, or an additional 24 days more for each year of a person's life. But while Jamaicans are living longer now than half a century ago, life expectancy, in both absolute terms and in years gained, lags behind some of the island's Caribbean neighbours.

In Antigua and Barbuda, where per-capita GDP is twice Jamaica's, the average person can expect to live up to 75 years, more than nine years, or over 14 per cent more, than at the start of the 1970s. In Haiti, among the hemisphere's poorest countries, life expectancy is only 61 years. But importantly, Haitians now live about 15 years longer than they did four decades ago.

This disparity in the changes in life expectancy in the Caribbean is more about lifestyle rather than the result of the relative wealth or poverty, according to Jamaican researcher Alafia Samuels. For, in Trinidad and Tobago, an oil-producing member that is the richest member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), life expectancy is only 69.3 years, having, like Jamaica's, extended by four and a half years.

With high levels of homicide in these two countries, the next reflective assumption is what is having a major drag on their expectancy.

"It is because people are dying of heart attack and strokes because people's diets are unhealthy," Dr Samuels said in Grenada last week at the unveiling of a study on the impact of non-communicable diseases in the region that she co-authored for CARICOM.

"They are not moving (exercising)," she added. "They are smoking and drinking."

 

TAXING SUGARY DRINKS

 

These findings, which should help CARICOM fashion a coordinated strategy against NCDs in the region, will hardly surprise health experts, especially those in Jamaica. If anything, it will provide heft to the attempt of Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton to fashion policies to confront non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as taxes on sugar drinks, which the private sector might find unpalatable.

In March, Tufton launched a food industry task force to look at this issue. The group chairman, Fitzroy Henry, a professor in public health at the University of Technology, estimated that 60 per cent of adult Jamaicans are obese, rising at a rate of one per cent a year over the past 15 years. Treating NCDs consumes about a third of the Government's health-care budget. Further, as the health ministry reported, around 20 per cent of deaths from cancers and 30 per cent of those from heart diseases are traceable to obesity.

The bottom line: This is fundamentally about what and how Jamaicans eat and exercise. On the latter, far too little. With regard to the former, large amounts of sugars, refined starches and fats.

Tufton has launched a campaign to promote healthier lifestyles, but far more needs to be done. But the Government need not attempt to reinvent the wheel.

The intention of the education ministry to remove sugary drinks from schools, if properly done, is a good initiative. Many countries, including Mexico, and from next year, Britain, have imposed taxes on sugary drinks. In some cases, firms are voluntarily agreeing to reduce the sugar content in their products and/or slashing portion sizes.

It makes sense for Jamaican firms to be fully engaged in this kind of dialogue, appreciating that it is short-sighted to focus only on the potential of an immediate impact on their bottom lines. For an unhealthy population is hardly good for business and the economy.