By Michael McCarthy
We’re living longer, but many of us are living with chronic illnesses that significantly lower the quality of our lives, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Washington.
The survey, called the Global Burden of Disease Study, finds that there has been a major change in the causes and impact of poor health over the past decades, with a shift away from early death to chronic illnesses and disability.
The survey found that since 1970 life expectancy has increased by 11.1 years for men and 12.1 years for women and that deaths among children under age 5 have plummeted, except in subSaharan Africa where childhood mortality remains high.
In general, improvement in life expectancy has been steady, but it slowed in the 1990s largely due to deaths from HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa and alcohol-related deaths in in easter Europe and central Asia.
With our longer life expectancy, the major burden caused by disease is no longer early death but instead chronic illnesses that cause pain and disability, such as arthritis, diabetes and dementia, and psychological disorders, the study concludes.
The study was led by University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We’re finding that very few people are walking around with perfect health and that, as people age, they accumulate health conditions,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of IHME and one of the founders of the Global Burden of Disease.
“At an individual level, this means we should recalibrate what life will be like for us in our 70s and 80s. It also has profound implications for health systems as they set priorities,” Murray said.
Dr. Paul Ramsey, chief executive officer of UW Medicine and dean of the University of Washington School of Medicine, said the study will serve as “a management tool for ministers of health and leaders of health systems to prepare for the specific health challenges coming their way.”
“At a time when world economies are struggling, it is crucial for health systems and global health funders to know where best to allocate resources,” Dr. Ramsey said.
The study found that while heart disease and stroke remained the two greatest causes of death between 1990 and 2010, all the other rankings in the top 10 causes changed.
Diseases such as diabetes, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease moved up the list, and diarrhea, lower respiratory infections, and tuberculosis moved down, the researchers report.
Explore the changes with this interactive chart.
And while malnutrition used to be a major cause of illness and death, today poor diet and physical inactivity are to blame for soaring rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke the study found.
“We have gone from a world 20 years ago where people weren’t getting enough to eat to a world now where too much food and unhealthy food – even in developing countries – is making us sick,” said Dr. Majid Ezzati, Chair in Global Environmental Health at Imperial College London and one of the study’s lead authors.
The study appears in this week’s issue of the medical journal The Lancet.