KINGSTON, November 17, 2011- Today, Jamaicans and citizens of the Eastern Caribbean are living longer than ever before. However, the good news of a life expectancy exceeding 70 years presents a unique dichotomy: people enjoy longevity but the quality of life is rapidly decreasing.
New World Bank research warns that Jamaica and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) are facing a health crisis with rising rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which disproportionately affect poor families, with possible side effects of disability and premature death, and worsening poverty as people pay for medical treatment out of their own pockets. In the OECS, the report estimates that the annual cost for treating a diabetic ranges from US$322 to US$769.
The St. Lucia data show that NCD patients spend 36 percent of their total household expenditure annually for care. Poorer households spend 48 percent of their per capita expenditure on healthcare while better-off households spend less than 20 percent.
“NCDs are rising substantially and rapidly as the Caribbean population ages,” says Joana Godinho, the World Bank’s Sector Manager for Health. “The longer-living population in Jamaica and the OECS countries is creating new demands on the health systems of each country,” Godinho adds.
Empirical data shows that people in the Caribbean are now developing these diseases at a younger age, reducing the quality of life while increasing the economic burden on families and health systems. It is estimated that up to two thirds of deaths worldwide are due to NCDs, the majority of which occur in low and middle income countries.
Age Paradox: Living Longer
All six OECS countries experienced an increase in life expectancy at birth between 1990 and 2011, with a high of 76 in Dominica and St. Lucia. The increase in life expectancy at birth, decrease in the death rate, and increase in infant mortality rates result in populations living longer. At the same time, the decreasing birth rates and a constant total fertility rate favor growth of the older population.
While life expectancy has grown in the past few decades, NCDs now threaten progress. On a global scale, Jamaica ranked 59th in the percentage of years of life lost due to NCDs and ranked fourth in the Caribbean, together with Grenada, at 66 percent of years of life lost, after Cuba, Antigua and Barbuda, and Dominica. Obesity, along with heart disease, cancer and other NCDs contribute to years of life lost.
The Gender Disparity of Obesity
Obesity is the most prevalent NCD, particularly among adult women. Women are far less physically active than men in all age groups. Globalization and urbanization have contributed to unhealthy eating behavior such as eating out, eating more staple foods and fewer vegetables and fruits, and consuming sugar-saturated soft drinks and fast food.
Dominica has the highest obesity prevalence in both gender groups in the OECS. It is projected that about 38.4 percent of males and 65.3 percent of females will be obese by 2015. Almost 60 percent of females in St. Lucia will be obese by 2015.
Breaking the Cycle
The increase of both life expectancy and NCDs may present a unique dichotomy; however, Caribbean policy makers have an opportunity to break this vicious cycle by establishing public policies that will improve the quality of life of their citizens.