People living longer, sicker
Study shows more battling diseases as life expectancy climbs worldwide.
LONDON — Nearly everywhere around the world, people are living longer and fewer children are dying. But increasingly, people are grappling with the diseases and disabilities of modern life, according to the most expansive global look so far at life expectancy and the biggest health threats.
The last comprehensive study was in 1990, and the top health problem then was the death of children under 5 — more than 10 million each year. Since then, campaigns to vaccinate kids against diseases like polio and measles have reduced the number of children dying to about 7 million.
Malnutrition was once the main health threat for children. Now, everywhere except Africa, they are much more likely to overeat than to starve.
With more children surviving, chronic illnesses and disabilities that strike later in life are taking a bigger toll, the research said. High blood pressure has become the leading health risk worldwide, followed by smoking and alcohol.
“The biggest contributor to the global health burden isn’t premature (deaths), but chronic diseases, injuries, mental health conditions and all the bone and joint diseases,” said one of the study leaders, Christopher Murray, director of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
In developed countries, such conditions now account for more than half of the health problems, fueled by an aging population. While life expectancy is climbing nearly everywhere, so too are the number of years people will live with things like vision or hearing loss and mental health issues.
The research appears in seven papers published online Thursday by the journal Lancet. More than 480 researchers in 50 countries gathered data up to 2010 from surveys, censuses and past studies. They used statistical modeling to fill in the gaps for countries with little information. The series was mainly paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As in 1990, Japan topped the life expectancy list in 2010, with 79 for men and 86 for women.
In the U.S. that year, life expectancy for men was 76 and for women, 81.
Globally, heart disease and stroke remain the top killers. Reflecting an older population, lung cancer moved to the fifth cause of death globally, while other cancers are also in the top 20.
AIDS jumped from the 35th cause of death in 1990 to the sixth leading cause two decades later.