Common Diseases in Finland and the Homogeneity of Genes

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HELSINKI — Finland has a highly industrialized, largely free market economy and is historically competitive in manufacturing principally in the wood, metals, engineering, telecommunications and electronics industries. Before 2009, the country had one of the best performing economies in the European Union, and in 2016 it was listed as one of the most developed countries in the world, with both competitive employment and education systems.

As a result, common diseases in Finland are largely noncommunicable. The most common causes of death in Finland are: first cardiovascular diseases followed by neoplasms (also known as abnormal tissue growths most often characterized as cancer), problems caused by alcohol and smoking, trauma, suicide and diseases of the respiratory system.

According to a 2014 report by the World Health Organization, cardiovascular diseases accounted for 40 percent of all deaths, cancers accounted for 23 percent of all deaths and respiratory diseases accounted for 3 percent of deaths. Communicable diseases accounted for only 2 percent of all deaths, while noncommunicable diseases were estimated to account for 92 percent of total deaths.

National efforts to decrease the occurrence of these common diseases in Finland and improve overall living habits have included campaigns against smoking, restraints on alcohol consumption and improved health education in schools. According to the Guardian, Finnish authorities began by banning tobacco advertising and shifted money towards exercise promotion to create cheap, clean swimming pools, ball parks and well maintained snow parks. Pilot projects and local efforts focused on promoting shifts in lifestyle and habit, and are still continuing today to decrease obesity and the number of heart attacks.

Finland further took a “health in all policies” approach in Decree 338 under its Health Care Act enacted in 2011. The National Institute of Health and Welfare, under the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, made additional contributions in helping municipalities implement national policies and track progress on national monitoring websites.

Beyond common diseases in Finland, 39 genetically linked diseases have been identified to impact the population. Due to the relatively easier access to medical records and well kept family pedigrees, health care data has been collected and analyzed. Researchers have discovered that centuries of isolation and intermarriage within the Finnish population has led to a set of hereditary disorders known as Finnish heritage disease (FHD).

Including Meckel syndrome, Usher syndrome, Retinoschisis, three rare causes of dwarfism and cystic fibrosis among others, FHD is significantly more common in people whose ancestors are ethnic Finns. Geneticists estimate that about one in five ethnic Finns is a carrier of one of the known diseases. The majority of mutations are inherited recessively, with a 25 percent chance of the child being affected if both parents are carriers of the same mutation.

Despite the fact that FHD is far less common than cardiovascular disease, it is a much larger player in the culture of the nation. Children are taught at an early age that Finnish genes are slightly different, and the search and identification of mutations in pedigrees are a source of familial pride.

With increased awareness and action towards change, Finland has continued to see overall improvement in its national health on both a lifestyle and genetic level.

Katherine Wang
Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Katherine Wang

Katherine lives in Los Alamos, NM. Her academic interests include molecular medicine, neuroscience, bioinformatics, and international diplomacy. Outside of The Borgen Project, Katherine writes original music and runs a fashion blog.

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