A country that rides out a gloomy economy together can lose weight together. At least, that's what a new population-based study in Cuba shows. During the 1990s, Cuba experienced a massive economic crisis, which in turn, suprisingly, fueled massive drops in death associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The study appeared online in BMJ, and measured the health of all residents ages 15 and 74 in the southern coast city of Cuba called Cienfuegos. The numbers were gathered in four sperate surveys in 1991, 1995, 2001, and 2011.

The researchers analyzed the impact on the population's changes in body weight between years, and looked at whether that affected cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer-related death rates. Specifically, the researchers wanted to figure out whether Cuban health was affected by a gas and food shortage in the years between 1991 and 1995.

The results showed that between the crises period, the Cubans lost an average of 9 to 11 pounds and experienced a stable then sharp 50 percent drop in diabetes deaths between 1996 and 2002. In addition, heart disease-related deaths fell 34 percent.

The mortality rate then jumped to 49 percent for diabetes as deaths due to heart disease stagnated post-economic recovery period in 2002. Surprisingly, the cancer rates increased more than 5 percent between 1996 and 2010, after a slight decrease between 1980 and 1996.

The researchers hypothesized that during the crisis period, the general public ate less food and had to walk or bike their way to places. These healthier habits led to the drop in diabetes- and heart disease-related death.

According to the World Health Organization, type 2 diabetes (which makes up 90 percent of diabetes cases worldwide) is so widespread that is should now considered a global epidemic. Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle-based disease that can develop over time due to excess body weight, lack of exercise, and poor eating habits. So it's no surprise that having to move more and eat less caused diabetes rates to drop.

Researchers said the participants in the study regularly engaged in physical activity for as much as 30 minutes of moderate to intense exercise for at least five days a week — indicating to public health officials that this could make all the difference.

Cuba's healthcare system stresses prevention, primary care, and community services despite economic pitfalls, said Demetrius Iatridis, professor at the Graduate School of Social Work in Boston College, in a study published in Social Work journal.  

"Although these solutions must extend far beyond our health care systems, physicians can help by monitoring weight and counseling patients who gain weight before they become overweight," said Walter C. Willett, professor and chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, said in the BMJ editorial.

"They can also help promote healthy social norms by visibly engaging in healthy behaviors," Willett added.