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Staying healthy: Reducing your risk of developing non-communicable diseases

Tobacco use, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

2012 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Regular health checks, like these in Sierra Leone, can help to detect the early signs of disease. Photo: Jim Loring/Tearfund

From: Non-communicable diseases – Footsteps 87

Ways to share health messages and reduce the risk of developing non-communicable diseases

The four main non-communicable diseases (NCDs) share common risk factors. Tobacco use, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Read more about recognising the signs of NCDs and how to help to prevent yourself and others from developing these diseases.


Cancer is a general term for a large group of diseases that can affect any part of the body. Cancer happens when cells start to grow abnormally beyond their usual boundaries. This abnormal growth can then spread to other organs.


There are over 200 different types of cancer with a variety of symptoms. However some common symptoms include unexplained weight loss, persistent cough, a lump somewhere on the body (particularly in the breasts), unexplained tiredness, difficulty passing urine, changes in bowel movements, skin changes (particularly changes in skin moles) and abnormal bleeding.

Please note: These symptoms may have other less serious causes but if they do not go away you should seek medical advice.

Number of deaths per year worldwide: 7.6 million


COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This is a term used for a number of conditions which affect breathing; including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Patients with COPD have damaged airways in the lungs which have become narrower, making it harder for air to get in and out of the lungs. The word ‘chronic’ means that the problem is long-term. Most cases of COPD are caused by tobacco use.

Please note: The symptoms of COPD are similar to tuberculosis (TB). Anyone who has had a cough for more than three weeks should be tested for TB, particularly in areas where HIV is common.


Cough, phlegm and shortness of breath. Some people may only notice their symptoms in colder weather, or they might put them down to bronchitis or ‘smoker’s cough’.

Number of deaths per year worldwide: 4.2 million


Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Hy-perglycaemia, or raised blood sugar, is a common effect of uncontrolled diabetes and over time leads to se-rious damage to many of the body’s systems, especially the nerves, kidneys, eyes and blood vessels. There are two types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 usually develops before the age of 40, especially in childhood. Five to 15 per cent of people with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes.
  • Type 2 usually develops later in life and shares common risk factors with other NCDs.


Undiagnosed diabetes can cause extreme tiredness, passing urine more often than usual (especially at night), increased thirst, unexplained weight loss, genital itching or regular episodes of thrush, slow healing of cuts and wounds and blurred vision.

Number of deaths per year worldwide: 1.3 million


Heart attacks and strokes usually happen suddenly and are mainly caused by a blockage that prevents blood from flowing to the heart or brain. The most common reason for this is a build-up of fatty deposits on the inner walls of the blood vessels that supply the heart or brain. Strokes can also be caused by bleeding from a blood vessel in the brain or from blood clots.


Often, there are no symptoms of heart disease. A heart attack or stroke may be the first warning of underlying disease. Certain types of heart disease cause shortness of breath, tiredness, irregular heart beats, chest pain and fainting.

Number of deaths per year worldwide: 17.1 million

Statistics: World Health Organization (WHO) –

Don’t smoke

Even light smoking (1–5 cigarettes a day) will increase your risk of having a heart attack by 40 per cent. Twenty cigarettes a day will increase your risk by 400 per cent. From the moment that you stop smoking your risk of developing the four main NCDs will reduce. 

Be active

You may walk a lot as part of your everyday life or do physically demanding work but if you are not exer-cising regularly then try to start with some simple steps. Doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week will significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack.

Seek medical advice

If you have any of the symptoms of the NCDs described on this page, try to seek out medical advice where possible.

Eat a healthy diet

In different parts of the world, the staple diet might look different but it is important to avoid too much fat and salt in your everyday food. Fruit and vegetables should form a major part of your diet. (Read more about healthy eating on page 3.)

Only drink alcohol in moderation

If you do drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Don’t drink more than the recommended weekly allowance. This allowance varies depending on your gender and weight as well as the strength of the alcohol. For more information, ask a local medical professional.

Think about risk

As you get older your risk of developing NCDs increases. Family history also plays a role. If one of your parents has suffered from an NCD then you should take special care to reduce risk of that disease. Some dis-eases may be more common for people from specific ethnic groups.

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