Five major factors threaten the health and longevity of Koreans, according to a government study. They are lack of exercise, obesity, high blood pressure and high incidence of tuberculosis and suicide.
The findings assess government efforts announced in 2011 to boost Koreans' life expectancy to 75 by 2020. The government was dismayed to find that the lack of exercise, obesity, blood pressure and the incidence of tuberculosis and suicides have all got worse since 2011.
Koreans' average life expectancy stands at 81.8 years, but at only 73 adjusted for mobility. That means the average Korean spends the last 8.8 years of his or her life in some way incapacitated. The five big threats are not shortening the life expectancy as such but efforts to prolong the span of a healthy and active life.
According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare on Monday, the proportion of adults who work out vigorously fell from 14.5 percent in 2008 to 6.8 percent in 2013 though the government set a target of 20 percent until 2020.
It classifies a vigorous workout as exercising for more than 30 minutes at least five times a week until people feel a slight shortness of breath.
Adult obesity among men grew from 35.3 percent in 2008 to 37.6 percent in 2013, though it remained fairly unchanged at 25.2 percent for women. The government's target is 35 percent for men and roughly today’s for women by 2020.
"It may look like more people than ever exercise due to the fitness craze, but they're actually a minority," said Oh Sang-woo at Dongguk University's Ilsan Hospital.
Although interest in exercise has gone up, Koreans still find it hard to find affordable gyms near home or office and have to invest considerable time and money to stay fit.
Long work hours also eat into the workout time, and many Koreans didn't develop the habit of exercising when they were young due to the heavy emphasis on academic work at the expense of physical activity.
"The problem has been getting worse recently as the numbers of highly-obese people are ballooning. The problem is that the trend is being blamed on individuals rather than on lack of much-needed support, especially from the government."
The government also slashed the goal for hypertension-related illnesses to 23 percent by 2020, but the rate actually increased from 26.3 percent in 2008 to 27.3 percent. Shin Jin-ho at Hanyang University Medical Center said, "As the population ages, the number of patients with high blood pressure also goes up, so we need a nationwide campaign to cut down on salt consumption" and other preventive measures.
Alarmingly, Korea also contends with the highest rates of suicide in the OECD with 28.5 per 100,000 population. The government avoids tackling suicide directly because those attempts often look only at high-risk groups, while more comprehensive help with mental health is needed to tackle this complicated problem. Also needed are efforts helping erase the social stigma of psychological treatment. Only 15 percent of sufferers from depression seek professional help.
Surprisingly tuberculosis, which grew explosively in the 1950-53 Korean War, still affects around 30 percent of Koreans, making it difficult to stem the rate of relapse.
Doctors say high school students, soldiers, nurses and others who can potentially spread the disease to large numbers of people, must be screened for tuberculosis as part of strengthened preventive measures.