As countries worldwide have been dealing with the problems of the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to imagine anything worse than communicable or infectious diseases. However in reality, today we are facing the dual burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

These diseases impact a person's health and can affect a population's productivity, economic growth, and social development. While infectious diseases spread from a contact point, NCDs are challenging to trace since they result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioural factors. Thus, it is important to understand the ways in which NCDs impact our lives and what steps can be taken to prevent or lessen the burden of these diseases. 

NCDs include ailments that cannot be passed from one person to another, and tend to be chronic — meaning they remain over time and symptoms may recur based on specific triggers. NCDs are dangerous because they can occur at any phase within a person’s life and may exist without prior knowledge. Additionally, living with NCDs can become expensive because of the cyclical need for medication. Examples of NCDs are diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases (such as asthma), cancer, and mental health conditions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NCDs take the lives of approximately 41 million people each year, out of which nearly 75% (32 million) live in low to middle-income countries. 

For members of the Ismaili community living in developing countries such as Pakistan, the Aga Khan Health Board (AKHB) is tasked with promoting healthier living to mitigate the risk of NCDs. One of the initiatives taken by AKHB in Pakistan to minimise NCD risk within the Jamat is the ‘Healthy Heart’ programme through which certified volunteers check the blood pressure, heart rate, and body mass index (BMI) level of Jamati members. Individuals attain a regular snapshot of their health which allows for early detection of any NCD. Additionally, the Jamat is able to obtain laboratory tests at a lower cost and has access to physicians who analyse reports and suggest appropriate treatments. 

While treatment and care are available for people diagnosed with NCDs, to maintain a good quality of life, prevention is the best cure. Since prevention against certain NCDs attributed to genetic dispositions is challenging, and changing one’s environment or socio-economic situation is not entirely feasible, it is in one’s own hands to make certain lifestyle choices that can reduce the risks of NCDs. These interventions include:

Daily physical activity

There is no shortage of benefits that exercise has proven to have on the human body. The WHO claims that ignoring daily physical activity increases the risk of NCDs by 20-30% and can decrease life span by 3-5 years. Exercise is key in preventing NCDs because it helps strengthen muscles, including our heart muscle. It also helps improve balance, boosts the immune system, reduces stress and depression, decreases hypertension, and prevents Type 2 Diabetes. For adults, a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity is recommended per week to maintain a healthy lifestyle. These activities include walking, gardening, hiking, swimming, cycling, playing games or sports, and even doing household chores. In order to reap the benefits of exercise, it is important to push to the point where one breaks a sweat and noticeably accelerates the heart rate. 

A wholesome diet

A balanced and wholesome diet is key to reducing the risk of NCDs. The following changes can be made to have a healthier diet: 

  • Consume plenty of fruits and vegetables daily. These are best raw and whole. Try to avoid fruit juices, especially packaged ones.

  • Reduce consumption of trans, partly hydrogenated, and saturated fats. This includes cutting down on the use of packaged sweets and fried foods. 

  • Switch to whole grains such as whole wheat, oats, rye, barley, corn, popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, , millet, quinoa, and sorghum. 

  • Cut back on sugar. Common forms of added sugars are sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, corn syrups, concentrated fruit juice, and honey. Many seemingly healthy foods such as packaged cereals and bread have sugar, so make sure to read the labels to ensure you purchase a lower sugar option. 

  • To help maintain caloric intake, try eating smaller and more frequent meals, making you feel fuller for longer. 

Conscious food preparation

Planning meals can reduce impulse eating and can help ensure a balanced diet. Try to incorporate vegetables in your meals and plan to cook legumes or lentils regularly. While grocery shopping, replace red meat with leaner options or switch to white meats like chicken and turkey. Avoid processed meats, choose skimmed milk instead of full fat, try fish rich in Omega-3 healthy fats, and pick up a good variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables for a sensible diet.

Mindful living

Certain behaviours such as tobacco and alcohol use and a sedentary or indulgent lifestyle can increase the risk of NCDs. Thus, it is suggested to cut out tobacco and alcohol use, decrease the time devoted to seated activities such as watching TV, surfing the web, or playing video games. Incorporate movement into everyday tasks by standing while talking on the phone, parking further from the office, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Studies have also shown that stress-reducing activities such as meditation and reflection lowered the blood pressure levels of NCD patients. 

Mawlana Hazar Imam and the Jamati Institutions have placed great importance on the prevention and treatment of NCDs. Alongside institutional efforts in mitigating NCD risk within the Jamat, it is up to each of us to play our part by getting regular health check-ups, maintaining a physical lifestyle, and regulating our diet to address this risk appropriately.