Diabetes: the scourge of city living

Posted on January 19, 2016
Archive : January 2016
Category : News

Brought on by obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, type 2 diabetes is endemic in cities worldwide. Could a more considered approach to urban planning help city dwellers live longer and better?

More than half of the world’s population now live in cities, and the number is growing fast: by 2050, it will be up to two thirds. But what does this massive shift in where we live mean for our health? Will being urban dwellers make us less healthy as a species – will it lead to a downward spiral of obesity, a lack of exercise and unhealthy eating? Or will it encourage us to exercise more, to eat healthily and to stay slim?

According to a group of experts gathered for a Guardian roundtable discussion sponsored by Cities Changing Diabetes – a global campaign created by Novo Nordisk, UCL and Steno Diabetes Center – the jury is out: no one knows what it will mean to the future of the human species that so many more of us will be concentrated in urban environments.

What is abundantly clear, though, is that for every risk there is also an opportunity: the potential disasters that so much dense city living could bring are mirrored by immense opportunities for encouraging healthy living on a scale that has never really been possible before. “Some people say cities are good for health – for example, in places like China, where people are moving from very rural communities to cities, it gives them more access to health services,” said Helen Pineo of Building Research Establishment.

But others, she added, thought this was leading to an increase in the incidence of many diseases. “The fact is that it must depend not merely on being in a city, but on the environment of that city,” said Pineo. “It’s all about the nature of the infrastructure provided.”

Diabetes is a global problem

Diabetes is one of the biggest health challenges where urban living is concerned. According to figures from the International Diabetes Federation, in 2014 there were 387 million people globally suffering from diabetes. By 2035 that figure will be up to 592 million. Last year 4.9 million deaths around the world were due to diabetes; and many more people lost their eyesight, or had limbs amputated, because of the condition. People with diabetes are also four times more likely to have a stroke. “We’re talking about an epidemic that risks not just health systems, which could buckle under the strain, but even entire economies,” said David Cavan of the International Diabetes Foundation.