Non-communicable diseases kill 38 million around the world each year. In India, the country’s Aga Khan Health Board rolled out Health Mantra, a national programme to help the Jamat to better understand the growing threat of NCDs.

According to the World Health Organization, a 30-year-old in India has a one-in-four chance of dying from a non-communicable disease before reaching the age of 70. In fact, 60 per cent of all deaths in the country are now attributed to NCDs.

Sometimes known as chronic or “lifestyle” diseases, NCDs are not transmissible or infectious from one person to another, but they have a long duration and progress very slowly. They include cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, as well as diabetes and cancers.

“Creating awareness in the Jamat about various non-communicable diseases and sensitising the Jamat about the need to have regular screenings is important,” says Dr Sulaiman Ladhani, Chairman of the Aga Khan Health Board for India.

“We needed a programme, which was both innovative and more interactive,” he says. “That’s how Health Mantra was conceptualised.”

A new initiative being rolled out by AKHB India, Health Mantra offers “a platform where various members of Jamat like adults, children and senior citizens can come together and engage in interactive health games, taste healthy recipes, meet experts, discuss and learn how to bring about a change in their lifestyle and have regular checkups.”

Because of the life altering messages it delivers, the programme is being launched all across the country in order to be able reach as many rural and urban members of the Jamat as possible.

The roughly 5.8 million Indians who die from NCDs each year are a fraction of the 38 million killed globally by these diseases, according to the WHO. Approximately 28 million of those deaths are from low- and middle-income countries, with children, adults and the elderly all vulnerable to the risk factors that can cause NCDs. A particular alarming observation is that these countries are witnessing the fastest rise in overweight young children.

Women are not immune either. A recent study noted that over 60 per cent of Indian urban women under the age of 45 are at a high risk for cardiovascular disease.

“Cardiovascular diseases are a major health problem among women and remain under-recognised and under-treated,” says Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of WHO South-East Asian Region.

One factor that explains the increasing risk of NCDs to Indians is the country's growing prosperity, which is causing dramatic changes to lifestyles and diets. This is not only true for the wealthy — studies show that the poor are as vulnerable to lifestyle diseases as the rich.

Genetics is another factor. For instance, the genetic predisposition of people of South Asian descent towards diabetes is so great that in the United Kingdom, being of Indian origin is considered a risk factor.

Some risk factors for NCDs are behaviours that can be modified such as alcohol and tobacco use, physical inactivity and unhealthy diets. These choices can contribute to symptoms such as high blood pressure, obesity, elevated blood sugar levels and excessive levels of fat in the blood.

The impact of behavioural risk factors is alarming. Up to 18 per cent of global deaths are attributed to high blood pressure followed by obesity and raised blood sugar levels. In 2010, it was estimated that 1.7 million deaths from cardiovascular causes each year were due to excess salt / sodium intake. Health Mantra uses innovative games and creative displays to help members of the Jamat learn about the dangers of NCDs and to provide effective strategies that they can apply to reduce their risk.

“The programme was very good,” says Mahendi Dinani who attended Health Mantra in Keshod, Gujarat and was impressed by the wealth of knowledge that it provided. “Information regarding various NCDs was given through a poster exhibition. The concept of tobacco cessation especially in the health game was interesting.”

Effective strategies to reduce the risk of NCDs

  • Avoid smoking and the consumption of alcohol.
  • Enjoy a balanced diet with adequate amounts of vegetables, fruits and fibre-rich foods (i.e. whole grains, pulses).
  • Be prudent in the use of salt, sugar, oils, and fats.
  • Be physically active most days of the week. Brisk walking for 30-45 minutes daily or any other moderate-intensity physical activity improves both physical and mental health.
  • Have regular check ups with your healthcare provider to speak about about you and your family’s health and wellbeing, and to help keep your blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood sugars, weight and other risk factors in check.
  • Find ways to relieve stress and take time to relax. Stress can raise blood pressure and has a negative effect on the body overall.