Monday, May 18, 2015

Smartphones and health

I think that I am fairly well qualified (obviously because of my age) to comment about life style changes that have happened over a course of last fifty or sixty years. I am not talking here about inflation, prices or fashions. I do not want to talk about technology either, but would rather like to restrict myself to changes in our life styles that have come about with the rapid growth in technology.

To start with, let us go back and check what was the life style of an average middle class family in India may be sixty years ago. Most of the people stayed in small dwellings of 2 or 3 rooms. The dwellings had minimum comforts. No one had luxury of separate bed rooms or attached bath rooms. In most of the cases, there used to be a common toilet for a few dwellings, which all shared. In big cities, water was supplied through pipes, but people had to collect water in storage drums for their daily use as water supplies were restricted to few hours every days There were no refrigerators, no air conditioners. There was no cooking gas, with most of the people using kerosene stoves. Leaving aside places like Mumbai, no public transport existed worth its name. Men used bicycles to go to work and sometimes families hired horse driven carriages. But mostly everyone walked around.

There used to be few cinema theaters and halls where dramas or plays could be run every day. Except for that, there was no entertainment. The telephone was something that was used very rarely because very few people had a phone. People communicated through written letters, for urgent communications, telegraphic messages would be sent. I can go on and on but think that this should suffice. I have described all these things in details really, to emphasize that life by no means was easy going. For most people, it was hard work from dawn to dusk in some form or other.

If we compare this lifestyle with that of today, we just can not deny the fact that our lifestyle today is far more comfortable, easy going and interesting, where we have cars or motor cycles for convenience, luxury dwellings with individual bed rooms and attached toilets. We have cooking gas and piped water supplies. WE communicate with each other on mobiles or smart phones. We have televisions to provide instant entertainment and a world of information stored on the internet.

About two decades ago, most of the developed countries, already had these gadgets as part of their life but millions of people from developing countries, still could not afford them, causing a big disparity between developed and developing nations. Then something interesting happened. Production centers in the west moved towards Asia and an unabated flow of consumer durables started coming from these new production centers and flooded the world. All of a sudden, costs of most consumer durable started falling. So much so that the consumers from developing economies could now afford them. With these gadgets, people in the low income developing nations quickly started adopting the luxurious western life styles.

What was the effect of this change in life style, on the health of the people, is a subject on which much research is being done presently. Results of one such study on this subject has been published recently in Canadian Medical Journal. The study included nearly 154,000 adults from 17 countries across the income spectrum, from the United States, Canada and Sweden to China, Iran, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The study comes up with some very interesting observations and facts.

Lead author of the study, Scott Lear of Simon Fraser University says:

With increasing uptake of modern-day conveniences — TVs, cars, computers — low and middle income countries could see the same obesity and diabetes rates as in high income countries that are the result of too much sitting, less physical activity and increased consumption of calories.” He adds that in Canada, about 25 percent of the population is obese and in the United States, about 35 percent of people are obese.

The report says that televisions were the most common electronic device in developing countries, with 78 percent of households having one, this was followed by 34 percent that owned a computer and 32 percent with a car. Just four percent of people in low-income countries had all three, compared to 83 percent of people in high-income countries. What is interesting is that people, who had all three devices were almost a third less active, sat down 20 percent more of the time and had a nine-centimeter (3.5 inches) increase in waist circumference, compared to those that owned none of the devices. The obesity prevalence in developing countries rose from 3.4 percent among those that owned no devices to 14.5 percent for those that owned all three. Eating more, sitting still and missing out on exercise, by driving, are all likely reasons why people with these modern-day luxuries could be gaining weight and putting themselves at risk for diabetes. The report also gives a clear cut warning:
Our findings emphasize the importance of limiting the amount of time spent using household devices, reducing sedentary behavior and encouraging physical activity in the prevention of obesity and diabetes.”

The findings are not something unusual. We are well aware of these facts. What perhaps is important is that the report has exactly pinpointed the relationship between these modern conveniences and their enduring bad effect on our healths. People with cars, televisions and computers at home, are far more likely to be more obese than people with no such conveniences.

What should we do? Do we give up these conveniences for sake of good health? Fortunately that may not be necessary. The report gives a clear cut warning to us: “Our findings emphasize the importance of limiting the amount of time spent using household devices, reducing sedentary behavior and encouraging physical activity in the prevention of obesity and diabetes.” Which really means that we should not get carried away by these conveniences and use them only when we must. Limit their use. If we do not do that, we are placing ourselves in peril.


18th May 2015

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