The pivotal role radiology plays in the detection of lifestyle diseases: insight from a radiologist

Diagnostic imaging like X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, mammographies and ultrasounds are really important for spotting lifestyle diseases early. Picture: Irwan/Unsplash

Diagnostic imaging like X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, mammographies and ultrasounds are really important for spotting lifestyle diseases early. Picture: Irwan/Unsplash

Published Jan 25, 2024


Statistics South Africa released a report in 2023 titled "Non-communicable diseases: Findings from death notifications (2008-2018)", which reveals an alarming increase in deaths caused by such diseases over two decades.

The report shows that deaths from diseases that aren't contagious, including heart problems, cancer, diabetes and serious breathing issues, jumped by nearly 59% from 1997 to 2018.

For men, the average age of death from these conditions was 65 and for women, 69. Men had a higher rate of death from these diseases compared to women.

Heart disease deaths in particular have risen from 2008 to 2018. Moreover, Black Africans in South Africa have been the most affected, with the highest death rates from these conditions, followed by Indian/Asian and coloured communities.

The white community had the lowest rates.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also points out the growing concern about these non-communicable diseases worldwide, and just three years ago, experts called this rise an “emerging epidemic” and South Africa's biggest health threat.

While these diseases used to be more common among wealthy South Africans, they're now impacting people from all income levels. However, some health professionals believe there's still hope to reduce the impact of unhealthy living habits.

Dr Allan Pamba, of Roche Diagnostics, makes a point about the critical role of diagnostic tools in treatment, saying, "Without diagnostics, there can be no treatment. High-quality diagnostics are the cornerstone of any clinician’s arsenal against disease."

In the same breath, Dr Jean de Villiers from SCP Radiology, highlighted the importance of advances in medical imaging for the early detection and management of life-threatening health issues contributing significantly to the understanding and treatment of these diseases.

Dr Jean de Villiers from SCP Radiology. Picture: Supplied

Why is it a “lifestyle” disease?

De Villiers explains that many diseases we hear about today are often called "lifestyle diseases" because they're usually caused by the choices we make every day and how we live our lives. He points out several things that can lead to these health problems:

Eating poorly and having lots of junk food, bad fats, too much salt and sugar; sitting around too much without exercising; smoking, which is bad for the heart and lungs, and can lead to cancer; living or working in places with dirty air or water; and some jobs that expose people to dangerous chemicals can all make people sick.

Also, if family members have these issues, you're more likely to have them too. Getting older and whether you’re male or female can affect your risks for certain diseases.

Dr De Villiers adds that being overweight and having high blood pressure or cholesterol can make heart disease and diabetes more likely. Stress that doesn't go away can make things worse, too.

Mental health is a big part of it, with studies from Harvard Medical School showing that bad mental health can hurt your body, leading to a higher chance of dying from heart disease or cancer.

This is because people struggling with mental health might not get the physical health care they need.

To stop these diseases from happening, Dr De Villiers advises making better lifestyle choices: eating healthy, staying active, not smoking, drinking less alcohol and managing stress.

It's also key to find these problems early on by going to the doctor regularly and getting check-ups and screenings.

The role radiology plays:

Diagnostic imaging

According to Dr De Villiers, diagnostic imaging like X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, mammographies and ultrasounds are really important for spotting lifestyle diseases early. This kind of imaging can show doctors what's happening inside the body and help them find any problems as soon as possible.

Monitoring disease progression

Radiological techniques can monitor the progression of lifestyle diseases over time. This is important for diseases like diabetes, where complications can affect the kidneys, eyes and blood vessels.

Treatment planning

Radiology aids in treatment planning by providing detailed anatomical information. For example, before certain surgeries or interventional procedures, imaging guides the medical team to target the affected area and minimise damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Screening programmes

These are essential for the early detection of certain lifestyle-related conditions. For instance, routine mammographies and colonoscopies for the early detection of breast cancer and colorectal cancer, respectively. Similarly, there are currently national pilot projects running to detect early lung cancer in high-risk individuals using low-dose CT scans of the chest.

Research and clinical trials

Radiology plays a key role in research studies and clinical trials aimed at understanding the mechanisms of lifestyle diseases. Advanced imaging techniques can be used to investigate the effects of lifestyle interventions and assess the effectiveness of treatment.

Patient Education

Radiological images can be used to educate patients about the nature and progression of their conditions. Being able to see the affected areas can help patients understand the importance of lifestyle modifications and treatment adherence.

In summary, radiology is an integral component of the multidisciplinary approach to the detection and management of lifestyle diseases.

It facilitates early detection, accurate diagnosis and effective management, ultimately contributing to improved patient outcomes and quality of life.