The so-called lifestyle diseases – especially diabetes, heart disease and obesity – have long been on the rise in Kuwait, and remain a concern. According to the Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI), a tertiary health organisation, 17% of adult Kuwaitis suffer from diabetes, compared to 9% two decades ago. Coronary heart disease, meanwhile, has become the leading cause of death, and 70% of Kuwaitis are considered obese.
As elsewhere in the developed world, where similar increases in such illnesses have occurred, the root cause is the adoption of modern ways of living. For Kuwaitis, this has been happening since the oil boom of the 1970s. People switched from doing manual labour to more sedentary occupations such as office work, and walked less as new, low-density housing led to the more widespread use of cars. At the same time, traditional diets changed. People began to eat more and more processed food; eating out, which had been a rare luxury, became an everyday occurrence.
This phenomenon is far from unique to Kuwait. Public health officials worldwide have noted that, as a country develops, communicable diseases tend to be replaced by lifestyle ones. Moreover, while diseases such as cholera or tuberculosis can be prevented by relatively swift measures such as immunisation and installing sanitation, lifestyle diseases, since they arise from people’s behaviour, are harder to combat and often require a generational approach.
So far, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health (MoH) has not yet drawn up a comprehensive plan to tackle lifestyle diseases, given the complexity of the issue and the multi-agency approach it would require. However, a number of small-scale initiatives by several public agencies are beginning to have an impact.
For one thing, schools are starting to teach pupils about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, and to promote healthy eating and living. Lessons on this are now incorporated into the national curriculum. The DDI, for its part, runs a programme of school visits to teach children about the risk of developing diabetes and how they can mitigate this through diet and exercise. The hope is that a new generation will grow up aware of the risks, determined to avoid them and committed to maintaining their own health. The DDI also conducts seminars and day-courses for adults on health themes such as diet and nutrition, while the MoH operates public walk-in clinics for those who fear they may be at risk of developing the disease, where they can receive diet and lifestyle advice as well as medical tests. Dr. Kazem Behbehani, director general of the DDI, told OBG, “Showing young Kuwaitis that there are ways to prevent the onset of diabetes requires intensive education in nutrition and lifestyle choices. It also requires continued support from the MoH and Ministry of Education in order to promote this on a national level.”
As in many countries, one unforeseen side effect of greater health awareness has been some degree of confusion among the public. While most Kuwaitis are aware of the need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, mixed messages and information overload can feel disempowering, causing uncertainty about what behavioural changes will lead to the best results.
Gyms have become more prevalent in recent years, with both local operators and international chains opening new locations. Sama Ayari, CEO of Argana Resorts, told OBG, “Many Kuwaiti youth are beginning to take great care of their health, and they generally prefer high-end facilities that offer personal trainers, pools, spas and social areas.” Furthermore, authorities are now pushing a message of incorporating activity, rather than pure exercise, into one’s daily routine, as a means of keeping up one’s health.
While it is true that Kuwait’s climate is not conducive to outdoor exercise in the height of summer, the country benefits from a mild winter, when outdoor activity is more feasible. Additionally, the authorities are now constructing walkways near residential areas. These can stretch for some 5-7 km, and provide a safe, traffic-free space where adults can walk and children can play, thus maintaining a basic level of physical activity.
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