Study: China faces surge in cardiovascular diseases

BEIJING • High blood pressure and obesity are becoming increasingly common in China, contributing to an epidemic of cardiovascular diseases that will probably worsen over the next two decades, according to a new study.

The study, by Harvard researchers, suggested that changes in lifestyle brought on by China's fast- paced economic growth over the past three decades had contributed to a sharp rise in cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes.

In 1979, for example, when the Chinese government began opening up its economy, roughly 8 per cent of Chinese adults had high blood pressure. By 2010, the rate had increased to 34 per cent.

  • 34%

  • Percentage of adults with high blood pressure in 2010; up from 8 per cent in 1979.

  • 40%

  • Percentage of heart attacks and strokes linked to high blood pressure as the biggest culprit in 2011, the most recent year of data.

"China is facing a rising epidemic of cardiovascular diseases, and it shows no sign of abating," Professor Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, said in a statement.

The study, published in the Aug 15 edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, was based on data from 26,000 people in nine Chinese provinces from 1991 to 2011.

High blood pressure was the biggest culprit, linked to about 40 per cent of heart attacks and strokes in the most recent year of data, 2011.

The findings were consistent with other studies warning of worsening rates of cardiovascular illnesses in China, even as living standards have improved.

China's embrace of Western foods, like red meat and soda, has exacerbated the problem, the researchers found.

Fast-food restaurants are wildly popular in many provinces, and obesity is a growing problem, especially among rural children.

Decreasing levels of physical activity were also a significant factor, the study found, as more Chinese families have moved to cities from the countryside.

Smoking is also widespread, despite efforts by the government to discourage the habit. More than half of Chinese men still smoke.

Cardiovascular illnesses are now the leading cause of death in China.

In 2011, 44 per cent of the deaths of people older than 35 were the result of cardiovascular diseases, the Harvard researchers found.

Using the data that they have gathered, researchers then projected how these trends might play out from 2011 to 2031.

"Our estimates suggest that the continued rise in high blood pressure, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, increasing obesity and worsening dietary trends will add millions of new cases of heart attacks and stroke over the next two decades," said lead author Yanping Li, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Prof Hu said that encouraging better eating and exercise habits "should be elevated to a national public policy priority".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Study: China faces surge in cardiovascular diseases'. Print Edition | Subscribe