Confronting the Realities of Midlife Mortalities

Thoughts From Afar
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I grew up on academic campuses and my experiences on these citadels of knowledge have been instrumental in shaping my views about life. Sometimes, I am inclined to believe that I have forgotten about ...
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“First, they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

I grew up on academic campuses and my experiences on these citadels of knowledge have been instrumental in shaping my views about life. Sometimes, I am inclined to believe that I have forgotten about some of these historical antecedences. However, in the last week, people I have known personally have lost their lives in ways that set me thinking as to whether I really forget. I have always argued that any death that occurs before the currently life expectancy of Ghana (64.1 years) is a drain on our human resource and its ability to participate in the nation’s development. Therefore, losing two able bodied friends around the fifty-age mark in less than a week has been disheartening.

That said, this has also set me back to some happenings over three decades ago. Back then, I was a secondary school student. Over a period of two and a half years, several prominent lecturers on KNUST campus died in their prime, around the half century mark. Back then, as their children, we were left in panic as we were not sure which of our parents was going to be the next to succumb. Fortunately, some of us were spared the ordeal. That said, I remember the pain and anguish the children of these lecturers went through. I also remember the discussions that went on as to how the country’s health system had let these illustrious Ghanaians down.

Back then, I was oblivious of the fact that apart from the family loss, there was a huge intellectual and human resource loss to the country. At the time of these deaths, life expectancy at birth in Ghana was approximately 55.7 years which meant that many of those who passed on average lost around 5.7 years of productive life. At last count, I remember the number of professors who lost their lives was six. This means, at that time, as a country we lost approximately 34.2 years of professorial input on just one university campus due to the inadequacy of our health system. Over that period, about seven (7) other KNUST lecturers who also unfortunately died around that same age, added on a further 39.9 years lost. Looking at the bigger picture, over a two- and half-year period of the passing of the mentioned lecturers, the loss of academic human resources capital just on one university campus based on this rough estimate was 74.1 years. This is a huge waste of acquired knowledge that the country never benefitted fully from.

Today, over three decades on, I find myself at the age of these academics and see exactly what happened to them happen to my generation. The difference however is that for us the loss of human resource years is much bigger. With the country’s current life expectancy, any loss of life around the fiftieth age leads to a loss of approximately 14.1 years of productive endeavour. The result is that as a country, we are failing to realise the full potential of the human resource we train. Yet, we continue to ignore these health failings and assume all is well. How we bury our heads in the sand and plod on is one huge irony.

Truth is, the diseases that took away colleagues of my father are no different from those that are taking away my friends and colleagues on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis now. Also, many of those who are passing have never benefitted from the historical antecedence of their family chronic medical history. This to me is where the biggest systemic failure has occurred. It is because as the size of the country’s middle class increases, quality of life will increase too, and with this will be acquired lifestyles that predispose one to chronic diseases. In practice, this has begun to manifest. A look at the data on the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in Ghana indicates that the contribution of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and stroke has been on the rise. Also, cancers that were not openly discussed in the past are now part of daily health conversations.

The failings in our health systems that let my parent’s generation down in our youth is dealing the same card to us today. Our generation owes it to our offspring to be at the forefront of fixing this. In doing so, we must remember that we do not have the luxury of age to dither. For many of us, the fortunes of our offspring are tied to the apron strings of our lives. Much as I think a move to decoupling these must always be on the agenda, we must be aware that our country lacks the social safety net for a huge paradigm shift to occur imminently. Thus, the need for us all to take our personal health seriously cannot be overstated.

Though from a personal standpoint such a move could be a stitch in time, I cannot help but emphasise that this would not overhaul the systemic failure that has plagued two generations and is set to continue. To overcome these failings will require a shift in our health provision model that results in early diagnosis of potential life-threatening diseases. The current system where patients must seek healthcare only when unwell with little or no public education on preventative health is just not able to prevent these mid-life mortalities that are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Other countries realising the human resource drain such mortalities were on the fortunes of their economic development put systems in place that ensured large scale public health screening for chronic diseases. For example, in the United Kingdom, anyone who turns forty receives a letter from their doctors’ surgery to undertake a health check. As stated on the National Health Service website, these checks are designed to spot early signs of stroke, kidney disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or dementia. It is time that perhaps we start thinking seriously of having such a system in place at a national level. In the interim, it may be advantageous if institutions could have this in place for their staff in the short term.

This is because data from the UK indicates that those between the ages of 40 to 74 years have a 20% or higher risk of getting cardiovascular disease or stroke over the next 10 years. This is the statistic that helped me understand what happened to those colleagues of my Dad over three decades ago and is beginning to pick on our generation around our half century of life. Yes, we have a choice in this matter and must exercise that choice judiciously. We need to also advocate that those who seek our support in getting into or retaining public office have a clear understanding on the health stakes we are confronted with.

After ravaging our parent’s generation and several generations after, with no one speaking out either because of lack of knowledge, political expediency or apathy, the chronic disease scourge is coming for us in our prime. We cannot afford to let our guard down and not speak up, nor delude ourselves into thinking this is not our problem. The issue is not that cancers and heart attacks are becoming common these days. Rather, it is that we are so prone to them at our age that if it does not take us out, it will take our friends and family.

Featured Image Courtesy of Icd 10

Edited by Winifred Awa

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