View all news

Chronic disease is linked to climate change, Professor says


Zoe Satherley
18 March 2009
Climate change may have much more to do with chronic disease than obesity does, Professor Garry Egger will tell the First Australian Lifestyle Medicine Conference in Sydney, beginning this Friday.

Obesity is just the ‘canary in the mineshaft’ said the professor of Lifestyle Medicine and Applied Health Promotion at Southern Cross University and World Health Organisation advisor, who is one of the keynote speakers at the three-day conference.

The conference is the first of its kind in the nation, designed to bring doctors and allied health professionals together to combat the huge rise in chronic diseases in Australia. It is being held at the Manly-Pacific Hotel.

“Through the modern environment, largely caused by economic growth, carbon resistance in the atmosphere and insulin resistance in the body (leading to obesity) are increased. Obesity is thus just the ‘canary in the mineshaft’, warning of other problems rather than being the main cause of disease on its own,” Professor Egger said.

“Climate change and chronic disease are both related to the same cause - economic growth. The best way to think of it is that cars make people ‘fat’ as well as making the environment ‘fat’ (from carbon pollution). Cars are a big part of economic growth.

“Modern humans living in the developed world are more sedentary, eat more denatured food and are subject to greater stress factors and environmental pollution than ever before, leading to increased inflammatory processes in the body due to an immune reaction to this ‘new’ environment.

“Changes in patterns of health, from predominantly microbial-related infectious diseases to lifestyle-related chronic diseases (e.g. obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer etc) suggest the start of certain declining benefits from further investment in the growth model.

“This is reflected in slowing improvements in some health indices such as mortality and infant mortality, and deterioration in others like prevalence of disability, obesity, and chronic diseases.

“Both climate change and health can be seen as growing problems with a similar economic cause and potential economic and public health, rather than personal health, solutions.

“Some common approaches for dealing with both need to be on the public agenda and there should be greater involvement of health scientists in the current environmental and economic debates, in order to effectively deal with issues like obesity and chronic disease.”

Professor Egger believes that three simple changes to our modern lifestyle could lead to 50 percent less heart disease.

Quoting Dr David Colquhoun, president of the Australian Cardiac Society, who is also presenting at the conference, he said that 75 percent of all premature heart disease could be prevented if Australians adhered to just three of five simple lifestyle practices:

1. Simple changes to the diet;
2. Regular walking;
3. Not smoking;
4. Keeping weight down; and
5. Reducing alcohol intake to a moderate level.

Dr Colquoun, a consultant cardiologist at the University of Queensland, said the evidence clearly showed that even for those on medication, 50 percent of many heart problems could be prevented by these lifestyle changes. And it appears it is never too late. Even 60-year-olds reduce their risk by more than 50 percent by changing lifestyles.

Dr John Dixon, from the Department of Primary Care, at Monash University, another conference speaker, said that although obesity had been implicated in a range of different diseases, the finding that a low grade form of inflammation exists throughout the body as result of lifestyle behaviours, and not just from obesity, suggests obesity might be just a marker of a bad lifestyle, rather than a direct cause of disease.

Professor Maria Fiatorone Singh, Professor of Medicine and Exercise Science, at Sydney University, will tell the conference that exercise may be as good as medicines for reducing depression - particularly in the aged.

She said research comparing exercise with anti-depressant medications has shown no difference in outcomes in those with mild (non-melancholic) depression. This is even more pertinent with ageing.

And some popular medications may actually make lifestyle problems worse, a leading pharmacology consultant, Dr Julian Henwood, will tell the conference.

“Popular modern medications like anti-depressants can actually cause greater problems than they cure if not used judiciously,” he said.

“Certain ant-depressants for example can cause weight gain in women or erectile dysfunction in men, which can add to the depression they are meant to cure. A lifestyle medicine approach to these problems, while using medication as an adjunct in treatment, should focus on dealing with the cause, for long term success.”

The First Australian Lifestyle Medicine Conference is auspiced by ALMA, the Australian Lifestyle Medicine Association, a multidisciplinary professional body developed to support the team care management of lifestyle-related health problems by general practitioners and allied health professionals.

For further conference details contact the ALMA Secretariat, Troy Grogan 0403 222 701 or (02) 4351 6800, or the conference organiser (02) 02 9977 7753 or 0408 643 914.

NB: Professor Egger is also the Director, Centre for Health Promotion and Research, Sydney, and author of ‘Health, ‘ill-th’ and economic growth: Medicine, environment and economics at the cross-roads’, a soon-to-be published paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In the paper he argues that economic growth has been the single biggest contributor to population health since the industrial revolution, but now the association has begun to turn sour, with negative returns in health beginning to be seen with continued growth. “Growth beyond maturity is either obesity or cancer,” he says.

Photo: Professor Garry Egger believes cars make both people and the environment ‘fat’. He will share his research and views this weekend at the First Australian Lifestyle Medicine Conference in Manly.