Fitness time bomb ticking for Chinese children

When the Beijing Health Bureau conducted a survey into the health of the capital's adolescent population, age 6 to 18, last year, the results were alarming: One in 10 had high blood pressure, and 10 percent were classified as obese, more than twice the rate in 2000. Photo: Reuters

Youngsters in China are eating more and exercising less, and that's leaving them open to the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity, as Yang Wanli reports.

In June, as the end of the spring semester approached, the parents of hundreds of students at Tianjin Mofan Primary School were busy choosing the classes their children would take during a six-week summer camp.

Classes focusing on the arts, sports, English and written Chinese were among the favorites because most parents believe their children need to learn cast-iron skills early on if they are to gain an advantage in adult life.

One parent stood apart from the others, though. Yue Lin, whose son is a third-grader at the school, wasn't interested in the classes. Instead he was more concerned about the boy's health problem - obesity. The 1.3-meter-tall boy weighs 60 kilograms, and a recent health check indicated that he also has high blood pressure. "I was shocked. It's hard to believe a 10-year-old boy can have high blood pressure, which is usually found among middle-aged and older people," the 40-year-old Yue said.

The root of the problem may be partly societal. Before recent amendments to the national family planning policy, most people from Yue's generation were limited to one child, and as a result the "little emperors and empresses" become focal points for the affections of the entire family, which often leads to overindulgence.

"More kids are getting fat nowadays, and a lot of them don't get enough exercise. I understand how people can overfeed their kids through misplaced kindness, but I find it very hard to accept that my son has high blood pressure," Yue said.

Yue's son is not unique. An increasing number of Chinese children are facing the threat of chronic diseases. When the Beijing Health Bureau conducted a survey into the health of the capital's adolescent population, age 6 to 18, last year, the results were alarming: One in 10 had high blood pressure, and 10 percent were classified as obese, more than twice the rate in 2000.

Moreover, in the northern port city of Tianjin a report released by the Women and Children's Health Center last year found that eight in 10 children younger than 6 had high blood pressure, and nearly 10 percent of the 50,000 children in the city's 654 kindergartens had excessive levels of fats in their blood.

"It's alarming. Chronic diseases are threatening more people, not only in the elderly group, but also children," Liu Shugong, director of the center's Children's Health Guide Department, said.

Compared with healthy children, those who are obese will be five times more likely to have high blood pressure, and about half of them will carry the condition into adult life.

"In the past, chronic diseases received little public attention and were not really seen as life-threatening. But now, they are eroding the health of the younger generation, and that will pose a big problem when those kids get older," Liu said.

Soaring medical costs

Chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are now the leading causes of global mortality. The number of Chinese affected by these "noncommunicable" diseases has climbed to 260 million, and they now account for 85 percent of all deaths in the country every year, according to statistics published by the World Bank.

"The cost to the country of providing medicine and treatment nearly tripled from 2000 to 2009, and chronic diseases were the main cause," said Mao Zhengzhong, deputy director of the China Health Economics Association, who added that nearly 60,000 Chinese people have at least one risk factor related to chronic diseases.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Chinese population is aging. The World Bank estimates that the number of Chinese age 65 or older will hit 240 million by 2030, double the figure in 2010, which will result in the economic burden caused by chronic diseases rising by 40 percent.

However, an aging society is just one cause, and other factors, such as lifestyle, also play important roles. In 2012, the average daily salt intake in China was 10.5 grams per person, nearly double the 6 grams recommended by the World Health Organization.

"Research showed that 8.5 million deaths could be avoided in 23 low-and middle-income countries in 10 years if the daily average salt intake declined by 15 percent," Mao said. "If concerted action were taken, the future effects would be very positive."

On July 1, the National Health and Family Planning Commission published a report that showed the proportion of overweight adults has risen by 32 percent, while the number of obese adults has risen by 67 percent, compared with 2002. The condition of children between ages 6 and 17 was even more alarming, with the number of overweight children doubling, and the child-obesity rate tripling.

According to Mao, this "invisible epidemic" is an under-appreciated cause of poverty and hampers economic development. The burden is growing, and factors such as smoking, excessive use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and low levels of physical activity are becoming increasingly important.

According to the report, 81.3 percent of Chinese children had levels of exercise that were classed as low or insufficient in 2012. At the same time, 9.3 percent of the population age 18 and older admitted to indulging in heavy, episodic drinking or unhealthy use of alcohol.

Compared with 2002, the consumption of cooking oil and animal foodstuffs, mainly fatty pork, has risen substantially, and accounts for nearly 33 percent of the average person's overall daily intake, far higher than the recommended 25 percent, the report said.

New guidelines

The commission is currently drafting a national prevention and treatment guideline to tackle the threat posed by chronic diseases, according to an official who spoke at a National Conference on Chronic Diseases Control and Prevention in June. Details of the guideline, which will set several targets to be achieved between 2016 and 2025, will be released before the end of the year.

Kong Lianzhi, deputy director of the commission's Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control, said the guideline would help to improve the nation's fitness levels by raising health awareness and promoting greater physical activity.

Since 2001, the government has turned the focus from treatment to prevention, so the provision of improved services in residential areas and home medical staff will be essential elements of the plan, Kong said.

In 1998, the health department in the Xicheng district of Beijing set up a program to train 25,000 citizens in healthcare and first aid by 2010, and by the end of this year, the number of people trained will be nearly 10 times higher than five years ago.

In June, the Chinese capital also launched a pilot project aimed at improving medical skills in 300 residential clinics. Experienced physicians from level-three (the highest level) hospitals will help to train the practitioners in the clinics, and diseases that affect the respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive systems will be the main targets.

An online system that will connect residential clinics with level-three hospitals is also being constructed and should be in operation by August, according to Wu Yonghao, director of the Society of General Physicians at the Beijing Medical Doctor's Association. "With this system, patients who require further treatment can be transferred from the clinics to the hospital without having to make a reservation," Wu said.

A number of other cities, including Shanghai, Guangzhou in Guangdong province and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, have joined the pilot program, which is set to be expanded across the country in the near future.

Tang Yue contributed to this story.

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