WHO releases global stats on causes of death

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released new statistics on the leading causes of death and disability.

The 2019 Global Health Estimates covers the period from 2000 – 2019.

The estimates highlight the need for a focus on preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases and injuries in  in all regions of the world.

Heart disease number 1; diabetes in the top 10

Heart disease has remained the leading cause of death, globally,  for the last 20 years. It is now killing more people than ever before.

The number of deaths from heart disease increased by more than 2 million since 2000, to nearly 9 million in 2019. Heart disease now represents 16% of total deaths from all causes. More than half of the 2 million additional deaths were in the WHO Western Pacific region.

Dementia on the rise in women

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are now among the top 10 causes of death worldwide, ranking 3rd in both the Americas and Europe in 2019. Women are disproportionately affected: globally, 65% of deaths from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are women.

Men more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes

Deaths from diabetes increased by 70% globally between 2000 and 2019. Men were disproportionately affected with an 80% rise in deaths from diabetes among males.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, deaths from diabetes have more than doubled and represent the greatest percentage increase of all WHO regions.

Decline in communicable disease

Globally there has been an overall decline in deaths from communicable diseases.

Pneumonia and other lower respiratory infections were the deadliest group of communicable diseases.

The overall declines in communicable disease reflects the success of efforts to prevent disease through large scale testing and treatment. For example, HIV/AIDS dropped from the 8th leading cause of death in 2000 to the 19th in 2019 due to efforts to prevent infection, test and treat the virus over the last two decades.

This same pattern was seen was malaria and tuberculosis.

People living longer – but with more disability

The WHO estimates also confirm the growing trend for longevity.

In 2019, people were living more than six years longer than in 2000, with a global average of more than 73 years in 2019 compared to nearly 67 in 2000.

But on average, only five of those additional years were lived in good health.

Disability is on the rise

To a large extent, the diseases and health conditions that are causing the most deaths are those that are responsible for the greatest number of healthy life-years lost.

Complications from diabetes, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were collectively responsible for nearly 100 million additional healthy life-years lost in 2019 compared to 2000.

Injuries are another major cause of disability and death. There has been significant increases in road traffic injuries affecting males across the globe.

In the Americas, drug use has emerged as a significant contributor to both disability and death. There was a nearly threefold increase in deaths from drug use disorders in the Americas between 2000 and 2019.

This region is also the only one for which drug use disorder is a top 10 contributor to healthy life-years lost due to premature deaths and disability, while in all other regions, drug use does not make the top 25.

Data sources and methodology

WHO’s Global Health Estimates present comprehensive, comparable and transparent time-series data for population health, including life expectancy, healthy life expectancy, mortality and morbidity, and burden of disease at global, regional and country levels disaggregated by age, sex and cause, from 2000 onwards.

“These estimates are produced using data from the best available sources from countries and the international community,” said Dr Bochen Cao, the technical lead for WHO’s Global Health Estimates.

“They are based on robust scientific methods for the processing, synthesis and analysis of data. These updated estimates also benefited from the valuable contributions of WHO’s Member States through active country consultation and dialogue.”

The availability of services to prevent, diagnose and treat disease is key to reducing death and disability, influencing where different conditions are ranked. These new estimates clearly indicate where additional investments in services are most urgently needed.

The importance of health data

“Robust health data are critical to address inequalities, prioritize policies and allocate resources to prevent disability and save lives,” adds Dr Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General for the Division of Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact at WHO.

“The WHO Global Health Estimates are a powerful tool to maximize health and economic impact. We call upon governments and stakeholders to urgently invest in data and health information systems to support timely and effective decision-making.”

At the time the report was published COVID-19 has tragically claimed more than 1.5 million lives. People living with pre-existing health conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory conditions) are at higher risk of complications and death due to COVID-19.

Health authorities worldwide depend on timely, reliable and actionable data to make informed decisions – this is especially true during a global pandemic. The next update to these estimates will include an assessment of the direct and indirect impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mortality and morbidity.

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