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‘Vices’ of urban lifestyle put hill tribe at health risk

Calcutta, March 18: Rapid urbanisation in the hills is exposing the Bhutias to mounting levels of stress and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, says a recently published study that contradicts the traditional belief that the members of the tribal community are characterised by their strong heart.

“The vices of urban lifestyle, highly conducive to diseases of the heart and blood vessels, are quickly catching up with the tribal people who are going through a rapid urbanisation process,” said Barun Mukhopadhyay, a professor at the biological anthropology unit of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Calcutta.

Lifestyle factors like fat-rich food, inadequate physical exercise and smoking are known to cause cardiovascular diseases. Tribal populations, especially the ones living in the mountains, are usually thought to be free of these diseases as they follow a different lifestyle that includes a lot of physical activity.

The ISI study, however, paints a different picture.

Mukhopadhyay and researcher Sobhanjan Sarkar conducted the study in Sikkim on 428 Bhutias, aged 20 years and above, from both sexes and living in rural and urban settings. They chose one ethnic group to maintain the homogeneity of the study. The Bhutias are also the largest single group living in both urban and rural areas.

The ISI team visited their houses and collected data regarding their blood pressure, lipid profile (for information about the amounts of four types of fat in the blood), and obesity level.

“Then using statistical methods, we measured the participants’ level of stress and its influence on these three factors, which in turn influence the cardiovascular health of a person,” Sarkar said. The results showed that Bhutias settled in urban areas were exposed to higher levels of stress that increased their risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

While 31 per cent of the men from urban settings had hypertension, the corresponding figure for rural men was only seven per cent. For the women, the figures are 24 per cent in urban areas and nine per cent in rural areas.

There were similar differences regarding high level of bad cholesterol or low-density lipoproteins in blood and obesity .

“A fairly large percentage of Bhutias, irrespective of sex and area of habitat, were also found to be overweight, which is alarming because if they continue to lead such a lifestyle, they will cross the boundary of obesity,” Sarkar said.

The findings have been published in the February issue of Science and Health.

“I’ve never seen such a comprehensive study in print before,” said Charles Weitz, a professor of biological anthropology at Temple University, US, who is considered to be the pioneer in the field of such researches. He said the study came at a critical juncture as “there still appears an opportunity to implement an effective intervention strategy”.

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