Health Trending in Denmark

I have been spending much time in Denmark recently, which I enjoy. Denmark’s 5.6 million residents host nearly 20.6 million visitors each year. I delight in being one of them. It’s a lovely country, generally safe and very friendly. Overall, Denmark boasts a healthy, happy and physically-fit population.

Health and wellness is a goal throughout Denmark. Reports show that most Danes believe they are healthy and satisfied with their overall well-being. From a health standpoint, Denmark is an interesting contrast to the United States because health issues affecting both countries often receive different emphasis.

Something our two countries have in common is an increasing awareness of the importance of physical activity to one’s general health and well-being. Historically, Danes are more physically active than Americans. In part this is due to the fact that Danes are less dependent on cars to get around.

One of my favorite sights in Copenhagen is the popularity of pedestrians and bicycles. People seem to walk more here than back home. Nine out of 10 Danes owns a bicycle and on average, Danes cycle about 1 mile daily. Only 4 out of 10 Danes owns a car.

Bicycles are a common form of transportation here. About 55% of all school children in Copenhagen cycle to school regularly. Many of Copenhagen’s adult residents ride bicycles to work on a daily basis. Bicycle transport is encouraged by a policy of dedicated cycling lanes, cycling bridges, free bicycle parking throughout the city, and priority plowing of bicycle lanes in winter. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen any bicycle helmets in Copenhagen except on bicycle-riding police.

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Special bicycle lanes abound in Copenhagen, which promote physical activity. City streets favor bicycles here: Stoplights along primary traffic routes reflect an average cyclist’s speed as distinguished from posted speeds for vehicles. Denmark has initiated “cycle super-highways” for bicycle commuting between Copenhagen and its suburbs with few or no traffic lights. Its emphasis on bicycles as a mode of transportation bodes well for the country’s health.

However, Denmark struggles with other health challenges unrelated to physical activity.  Smoking, alcohol, and drug use apparently pose significant health challenges for the country. Like Americans, Danes are generally resistant to any regulation of, or government interference with, their exercise of “personal freedoms.” Danes’ passion for personal freedoms generates resistance to government regulation of health-related activities. For example, smoking cigarettes continues to present a significant health issue in this otherwise health conscious country – much more so than in the States. Smoking remains very common in Denmark. While respectful of the occasional smoking bans designed to protect others from secondhand smoke, smoking in “personal spaces” and many public areas remains commonplace. In 2016, cigarette sales actually rose.

Alcohol consumption is another example of Danes’ exercise of their personal freedoms. While respectful of drink-and-drive laws designed to protect others, Danes protect their right to make their own decisions about if, when, and what they’ll drink. Overall, my sense is that alcoholic consumption in Denmark occurs in amounts that might be considered excessive by most Americans. In 2015, Danes on average bought enough alcohol for about 10 alcoholic drinks per week per person.

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Drug usage also is a health problem in Denmark. Although marijuana is illegal in Denmark, its status as an illegal substance is controversial. In the Copenhagen neighborhood of Christiana, illegal drug sales are often tolerated in its “green light” district – fueled by public demand. As of 2016 marijuana use in the area was widespread, and an estimated 17,000 Danes were injecting illegal drugs (principally opiates, but increasingly cocaine).

With respect to their environment, Danes are very conscientious. Unfortunately, as in the States, adverse health impacts of urban air pollution continue to worsen in many areas. Air pollution in Copenhagen has been linked to a range of health challenges including minor eye irritation, asthma and cardiovascular disease. Denmark’s PM 2.5 levels (fine pollution particulates that can be inhaled into the deepest part of our lungs) were reported to average 11.1 micrograms per cubic meter by the World Bank in 2013, which is higher than the upper safety limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

With respect to nutrition, Danes tend to eat well and have the highest caloric intake of all Europeans, according to WHO. Most Danes are very physically active and they remain physically fit. Obesity rates in Denmark are reported to be much lower than in the States, but they are increasing. In 2016, WHO reported that 58.7% of males and females in Denmark are overweight, including 21% of whom are obese. (By comparison, 69.6% of males and females in the U.S.A. are overweight, including 35% of whom are obese.) Causes are debated, but are alleged to result from an increase of “fast food,” highly-processed foods, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and excessive beer and ale.

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Further, Danish children are showing the affects of “fast foods” and sugary beverages that are undermining the traditional Danish diet. As in the States, Danish children are generally consuming more “added sugar” than adults, in amounts exceeding WHO-recommended guidelines. Research suggests a strong connection between Danish children who are overweight or obese and sugar-sweetened drinks. Sugar-sweetened drinks such as soda are one of the primary sources of excess sugar among Danish children. Similar to American consumers, many health-conscious Danes are shifting from soft drinks to bottled water, juices, coffee drinks, tea drinks, energy drinks, and sports drinks. Depending on the beverage, sugar content may be lower than, equal to, or higher than the soft drinks they are giving up.

In sum, Danes face many of the same health challenges that we have in the States — some that they may handle better and some that they are working to improve. Overall, I am left with the impression that their traditional diet, their tradition of physical activity, their environmental activism, and their attention to overall health and well-being will serve them well in the long-run. That makes me very happy indeed.

Photos Licensed by 123rf

Posted Originally on October 3, 2016

Fact Resources:

“Danish Lessons,” Drink and Drug News: DDN, The Magazine for the Substance Misuse Field, June 2, 2014.

European Observatory on Health Care Systems, “Health Care Systems In Transition: Denmark,” 2001, http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/80686/E72967.pdf

“Facts About Cycling in Denmark,” Cycling Embassy of Denmark, http:// http://www.cycling-embassy.dk/facts-about-cycling-in-denmark/statistics/, as of September 8, 2016.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Better Life Index: Denmark, http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/denmark/, as of September 5, 2016.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Health Statistics 2014, How Does Denmark Compare? http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/80686/E72967.pdf and https://data.oecd.org/healthrisk/daily-smokers.htm

Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, “The Number of Persons with Alcohol in the Danish Population,” http://sjp.sagepub.com/content/39/2/128.abstract, as of August 31, 2016.

“This Is How Much Danes Drink and Smoke,” The Local dk, June 5, 2016, http:// http://www.thelocal.dk/20160705/this-is-how-much-danes-drink-and-smoke.

“WHO Calls on Countries to Reduce Sugars Intake Among Adults and Children,” World Health Organization, Media Centre, Press Release dated March 4, 2015.

World Health Organization Diabetes Country Profiles, Denmark, 2016, http://www.who.int/entity/diabetes/country-profiles/dnk_en.pdf, as of September 8, 2016.

World Health Organization Diabetes Country Profiles, USA, 2016, http://www.who.int/entity/diabetes/country-profiles/usa_en.pdf, as of September 8, 2016.

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