As Nigeria marks 59 years of independence today, one critical aspect of our nationhood journey that I consider worth assessing is the state of our healthcare system and, more importantly, the health conditions of the citizens themselves. I have to quickly emphasise that since the Nigerian healthcare system is a part of the entire national infrastructure, it should not come as a surprise that the same disparity that exists between the huge potentialities of the nation and the realities on the ground, equally holds true for the health sector.
As it can it be said of the nation as a whole, the health sector has indeed made considerable progress – considering how far we have come since 1960, in terms of number of health training institutions, healthcare personnel, medical facilities, accessibility of care, research institutes and outputs, as well as health-related manufacturing companies.
Yet, it is also very true that we are not where we ought to be. Proofs of this can be found in the country’s health indicators, which have consistently been far from impressive. In fact, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the nation’s health indicators are “some of the worst in Africa”, not to talk of the world at large.
To explain better, health indicators are measures designed to summarise information about given priority topics in population health or health system performance. Some of such indicators include maternal and infant mortality, healthcare financing, a ratio of healthcare workers per 1000 population, disease prevalence and life expectancy. According to recent reports from leading world health bodies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), despite smatterings of progress that have been made in recent years in maternal and child health, Nigeria still occupies the unenviable position as a leading contributor to the regional and global burden of women and children’s death.
The country also still has the highest burden of malaria globally, which remains the top cause of child illness and death. Moreover, Nigeria has the second-largest number of people living with HIV globally and accounts for nine percent of the global HIV burden. Even more disturbing was the 2018 report from the WHO that Nigeria had the lowest life expectancy in the whole of West Africa.
Causes and Consequences
A number of apparent factors can be blamed for these unenviable realities in the nation’s health landscape. Top on the list is the abysmally low budgetary allocation to the health sector from year to year. For instance, the allocation for the current year was just two per cent of the total budget – out of which more than half is for recurrent expenditure, while the meagre leftover is for capital expenditure. Similar paltry allocations were made to health in the preceding years. In fact, for several years now, allocation to the health sector has not risen above five per cent, which is far below both the recommendations of the WHO and the Abuja Declaration.
The repeated snub of the Abuja Declaration by successive governments is particularly worrisome because, as the name implies, it was right here, in Nigeria, that leaders of African Union countries met in April 2001 and pledged to allocate, at least, 15 per cent of their annual budget to the health sector. That was the kernel of the declaration and while other countries at that meeting, including those smaller than Nigeria, have exceeded the targets, Nigeria has neither attained nor seem keen to attain even half of the target.
As should be expected, with such acute shortage of funds, the country’s health sector has continued to decline, evidenced by the poor and ill-equipped state of most public hospitals and grossly inadequate health provision to citizens. One ripple effect of these is the massive brain drain in the health sector, with thousands of Nigerian healthcare workers leaving the country for better working environments. Another is what has come to be known as “medical tourism” – used to describe the alarmingly increasing number of Nigerians needing or seeking treatments overseas.
Of course, there are other factors that may be blamed for the doldrums in the nation’s health sector. However, I must also quickly add that a number of recommendations are being made by experts and stakeholders to remedy the anomalies in the health sector. Time and space will not allow me to exhaust them here. Nevertheless, while we wait to see these efforts come to fruition, it is my view that individuals must take responsibility for their wellbeing. Actually, even in climes where the health system is in better shape, citizens are still expected to make the choice of not only taking advantage of health provisions by going for regular health screening and seeking medical attention early enough but also taking measures to see that they do not fall ill often.
To this end, I will be exploring certain lifestyle considerations and choices that can contribute to better life expectancy for every Nigerian.
Link between Lifestyle and Lifespan
I believe that, regardless of the state of things in the country, people will individually pay more attention to their health if they understand that there is a strong connection between their lifestyle and their ultimate lifespan. Indeed, much of what people consider to be symptoms of health decline and ageing – such as wrinkles, weight gain, memory loss, lack of energy and certain types of illnesses – is not primarily caused by passage of time or harsh economic conditions. Rather, it is a direct result of sedentary living, poor diet, lack of sleep, insufficient (or nonexistent) skin care, too much stress, and even a defeatist attitude to life.
Therefore, it stands to reason that if an individual reverses such habits –that is, if one sufficiently exercises the body, eat longevity-promoting food, sleep soundly, adequately protect and nourish the skin, and improve one’s outlook on the world, the signs of ill-health and ageing will reverse themselves, too.
Medical science has recently discovered that advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) are responsible for causing illnesses and speeding up the ageing process. The body forms AGEs and we also consume them in certain foods. When the quantity of AGEs in the body gets high, they can cause wrinkles, sagging skin, kidney and nervous system damage, clogged arteries, diabetes, cataracts, inflammation and other age-related diseases, and eventually, death.
AGEs are formed in the body when sugars combine with amino acids. High blood sugar, therefore, can trigger formation of AGEs. Research has shown that foods of animal origin such as meat, poultry, fish and cheese have high levels of AGEs. Levels of AGEs rise when foods are cooked. The higher the cooking temperature, the more AGEs are produced. Therefore, frying, grilling and roasting increase the rate of AGEs formation.
Foods of plant origin – fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains – are lowest in AGEs. They also contain antioxidants that destroy free radicals that damage the cells of the body thereby resulting in ageing.
Key to Longevity
Limiting sugar in one’s diet is a key to longevity because sugar molecules inflict damage to the body. Fructose, in particular, is an extremely potent pro-inflammatory agent that creates AGEs and speeds up the ageing process. Consumption of foods such as white bread, pastries, cookies and candy increases the sugar in the body and adds to the havoc. Heavy consumers of soft drinks and fruit juices add excess of sugar to their bodies.
High-sugar diets lead to obesity. Carbohydrates like fructose and other sugars destroy your insulin sensitivity, which, in turn, causes your cells to accumulate more fat. This makes it more difficult to get rid of the extra weight, as well. Therefore, if you want to look and feel younger, drastically reduce all forms of sugar in your diet.
It is also important to emphasise that water (not beverages) is absolutely essential for good health. It has been demonstrated that the lack of adequate water in the body is implicated in many health problems. For example, if you do not supply enough water to the body, your brain cannot function well, and you may have a headache or migraine. Harmful effects of dehydration include tiredness, constipation, muscle cramps, irregular blood pressure, kidney problems, dry skin etc.
If you need to lose weight, water will help you, since it reduces your appetite and has zero calories. With an adequate supply of water to your brain, you think better, become more alert and concentrated on your work. Water is also the best moisturiser for your skin, increasing skin elasticity, helping to replenish skin tissues, thereby making you look younger. Generally, you are less likely to get sick when the proper balance of water is maintained in the body. Studies have shown that drinking a healthy amount of water may reduce the risks of bladder and colon cancer.
Let me also add that studies have shown that we need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, to maintain good health. Going to bed early (before 10.00 pm) is conducive to health. It has been found out that one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight. Getting enough rest can help you to effectively cope with stress. When we are burdened with thoughts and worry, they have adverse effects on our bodies. Taking time to absolutely do nothing and rest our minds can have wonderful health benefits. It is during this time of rest that we are able to recuperate, recharge, meditate and contemplate.
It is my view that if each individual can make the decision for a healthy lifestyle as explained above, then we are definitely more steps closer to having a healthy and wealthy nation.