Covid impact: Indians are now more obese, hypertensive and prone to diabetes

The findings of the latest National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NHFS-5), fifth in the series of such surveys commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, reveal that Indians have become more obese, hypertensive, and prone to diabetes when compared to the data from NFHS 2015-16 (NHFS-4).

The survey fieldwork was conducted in two phases – phase one from June 2019 to January 2020 and phase two from January 2020 to April 2021. Since the second and the longer phase of the NFHS-5 was conducted amid the pandemic, the survey findings also capture the impact of the pandemic and the lockdowns on the key health parameters of the Indian population. The survey results are based on information gathered from 6,36,699 households, 7,24,115 women and 101,839 men.

The national-level data of NHFS-5, when compared with those of NHFS-4, show a marked increase in the proportion of adults suffering from obesity, high blood sugar levels and hypertension (see table). Nearly a fourth of the men and women surveyed were found to be overweight or obese having a body mass index of more than 25 kg/square metres. In comparison, the NFHS-4 had found 19% of men and 21% of women to be overweight or obese.

The NHFS-5 has increased the scope of clinical, anthropometric, and biological testing to expand the age range for the measurement of blood pressure and blood glucose as well as include the measurement of waist and hip circumference. In this context, 15.6% of the men and 13.5% of the women were found to have high or very high blood sugar levels or were taking medicines to control the sugar level. A fifth of the women and nearly a quarter of the men surveyed had elevated blood pressure or were taking medicine to control blood pressure. And, 57% of the women and 48% of the men surveyed had a high risk waist-to-hip ratio.

Incidentally, the surge has been more pronounced among the urban dwellers. One-third of the urban men and women surveyed were found to be overweight or obese. As much as 18% of men and 16% of women had high blood sugar level or were taking medication for controlling it. A quarter of urban men and women had elevated blood pressure or were taking medicine to control their blood pressure. Also, compared to men at the overall level, a higher proportion of women score poorly on certain health indicators such as being anaemic and overweight as well as having high-risk waist-to-hip ratio.

As Indian pharma companies renew their focus on the domestic market, these survey findings hold them in good stead. Drugs for treatment of lifestyle disorders of cardiac and diabetes have been among the biggest and fastest growing class of drugs in India.

Incidentally, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of men who consume tobacco and alcohol over the past three NHFS – an aspect that does not augur too well for the cigarette and liquor companies.

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