Your health is in your hands

The World Health Organization has identified globally 10 risk factors to human health: (1) unsafe water, lack of sanitation and hygiene; (2) indoor smoke from solid fuels; (3) high blood pressure; (4) high cholesterol; (5) tobacco consumption; (6) underweight (emaciation); (7) obesity; (8) alcohol consumption; (9) unsafe sex; and (10) iron deficiency. Together, these account for more than one-third of all deaths worldwide (see Table 1).

Unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene (mainly through infectious diarrhea) cause 1.7 million deaths a year worldwide. Nine out of 10 deaths occur in children, mostly in developing countries.

Half the world's population (3.1 billion people) is affected by indoor air pollution due to cooking and heating fuel, leading to lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

High blood pressure and cholesterol are related to excessive consumption of fatty, sugary, and salty foods. They become even more lethal when combined with tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption. Overall, high blood pressure causes 7 million deaths a year and cholesterol more than 4 million deaths.

Deaths from tobacco use in the year 2000 stood at 5 million people around the world–a jump of one million over the incidence in 1990. Smokers have death rates two to three times higher than non-smokers.

More than one billion adults worldwide are overweight and between 300 and 500 million are clinically obese. Half a million die annually in North America and Western Europe from obesity-related diseases. In industrialized regions like North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific, at least one-third of all diseases are caused by tobacco, alcohol, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and obesity. More than three-quarters of cardiovascular diseases–the world's leading cause of death–are connected to tobacco use, high blood pressure, and/or high cholesterol/obesity.

Worldwide, alcohol caused 1.8 million deaths in the year 2001, or 4 percent of the global disease burden; the proportion peaked in the Americas and Europe. Alcohol was the cause of 20 to 30 percent of esophageal cancers, liver diseases, epilepsy, motor vehicle accidents, homicides, and other intentional injuries worldwide.

At least 27 percent of children (<5 yrs old) worldwide are underweight. This condition caused an estimated 3.4 million deaths in 2000, including about 1.8 million in Africa and 1.2 million in Asia. It was a contributing factor for 60 percent of all child deaths in developing countries.

Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting an estimated two billion people, and causing almost a million deaths a year. Young children and their mothers are the most commonly and severely affected. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of acquired blindness in children. Iodine deficiency is probably the single most preventable cause of mental retardation and brain damage. Severe zinc deficiency causes short stature and impaired immune function and is a significant cause of respiratory infections, malaria, and diarrhea.

Globally, about 2.9 million deaths are attributable to unsafe sex. Most of these deaths occur in Africa. In addition, during 2001 more than 99 percent of HIV infections prevalent in Africa were attributable to the same behavior. Elsewhere, the proportion of HIV/AIDS deaths attributable to unsafe sex ranged from 13 percent in East Asia and the Pacific to 94 percent in Central America. Less than 30 years after its appearance, HIV/AIDS is the world's fourth single biggest cause of death (see Table 2). Currently 28 million (70 percent) of the 40 million people with HIV reside in Africa, but the infection is spreading rapidly elsewhere, as well. Life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at 47 years; without AIDS it would be 62.

What you can do to reduce and eliminate risks

Take a proactive stand for life. Those who do not take a proactive stand against the major risk factors to human health often become victims to disease and early death. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you shall die” is not a motto for the ones who want to resist illness and enjoy healthful living. When faced with real threat to health, the passive presumption that nothing can be done will do more harm than good. Arguing for a pro-active stand means taking a possitive step against what contributes to the risk factors to human health. These risks must not be ignored.

Assume a responsible attitude to life. “I don't have it,” “I won't get it,” “I can take care of myself” are often the expressions of not the strong, but the irresponsible. When it comes to lifestyle habits like the use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, or when the temptation is irresponsible sex, the really responsible person will say No. Only the person irresponsible to oneself or one's family would say such things, as “I can quit it when I want to” or “I fell a victim to an irresistible attraction.” Instead, stand tall and firm. Be responsible. Take every precautions against these health risks, and don't fall a prey to any of them.

Do something positive. Don't assume a nihilist attitude that nothing can be done about the present condition. Great things can happen with small beginnings. Take, for example, the high risk of poor sanitation or lack of clean water. An entire community can be affected by this. Do something. Write to the local government. Organize self-help campaigns. A community so organized can clean up its neighborhood, provide basic sanitation, and be an example of healthy enviornment to others.

Do not put off what can be done today. Procrastination is the devil's great tool. Suppose the doctor has told you to quit drinking as your liver is damaged. You must take a stand for your health's sake. Don't justify your behavior: “Tonight is the big party, I want to have some fun one last time. I'll stop tomorrow.” That may never happen. If you are a victim of one of these risks of health, take action immediately.

Don't be apathetic. Apathy (i.e., a kind of exclusion through indifference in spite of indubitable evidence) leads a person to self-delusion. Such an individual knows that eating a low-fat diet, high in vegetables, fruits, and fibers, helps to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, but he still continues eating greasy foods with few vegetables, fruits or fibers. The result of such apathy is self-delusion, and eventually the person falls victim to ill health.

Interventions to increase wellness in your life

Interventions may be defined broadly as any preventive, curative, or rehabilitative activity where the primary intent is to improve health. Here are some tips for a better style of life:3

Improve your mental health

Make responsible choices about substance use

Make wise decisions about food and drinks

Other important lifestyle choices

Protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases ( STDs)

By being informed on these important matters and making wise lifestyle choices you will be able to significantly reduce your health risks and increase your well-being.

Esteban S. Poni-Ravagli (M.D., Universidad Central de Venezuela; Loma Linda University) is a physician with specialties in internal medicine and pediatrics involved in clinical research and scientific publications. His email: Carlos A. Poni-Escobar has completed his premedical studies and is a teaching assistant at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in Loma Linda, California, U.S.A.


  1. The World Health Report 2002 and 2003. In
  2. E. Poni, “Taking charge of your health,” Dialogue 16(2004) 1: 8-10.
  3. P. M. Insel and W.T. Roth, in Core Concepts in Health, Stanford University, 2004.
  4. If you are a strict vegetarian, your doctor may recommend vitamin supplements to avoid vitamin B12 deficiency. However, cereals, soy beverages, and yeast can provide vitamin B12 to your body, thus delaying or decreasing the need for frequent medical interventions.