Sloth, gluttony and our rising rates of diabetes

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The Independent Online

It is impossible to evaluate the threat posed by diabetes without drifting into hyperbole. "Timebomb", "catastrophe" - the clichés come thick and fast

It is impossible to evaluate the threat posed by diabetes without drifting into hyperbole. "Timebomb", "catastrophe" - the clichés come thick and fast, but in this case they are justified. We are reaping the whirlwind for our gluttony and sloth. The growth of diabetes across the western world is, in the words of Professor Sir George Alberti, the immediate past president of the International Diabetes Federation, "quite, quite frightening".

In Britain alone, 1.8 million people have been diagnosed and a further one million are thought to be living with the condition in ignorance that they have it. The numbers affected have more than doubled since 1980 and are set to almost double again by 2010, to 3 million. These are figures to make the eyes water. Already the NHS is spending one pound in every 20 on diabetes and its complications. By 2011 that is projected to rise to one pound in every 10. Can we afford it? And what other parts of health care will have to shrink as a result?

Britain is better prepared than some countries, but the challenge is still immense. A 10-year plan to improve the care of patients with diabetes was launched last year, and there is at last in Whitehall a recognition that rapidly rising rates of obesity must be tackled. Better care could substantially reduce the burden of the illness. Tight control of blood pressure and blood glucose levels in diabetic patients can reduce the risk of heart disease by more than half, of stroke by almost half, and of kidney and eye disease by a third.

But in the longer term, curbing the relentless rise of diabetes will depend on populations eating less and doing more. Knowing the answers is one thing, bringing them about is another. The food industry ought to eradicate some of its unhealthy practices. The Government must provide a fiscal and physical environment which offers people maximum opportunity for exercise.

But achieving behavioural change depends, ultimately, on us. Diabetes is a disease of the easy society, the one that provides maximum gain for minimum effort. What is needed is a quite dramatic social change. Life, put simply, has to get more physical.

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