Noncommunicable diseases now the world’s bigger killers

The World Health Authority’s (WHO) 2019 Global Health Estimates has found noncommunicable diseases now make up 7 of the world’s top 10 causes of death.

The figure is an increase from 4 of the 10 leading causes in 2000. The new data cover the period from 2000 to 2019 inclusive.

The estimates, which cover the period from 2000 to 2019 inclusive, reveal trends in mortality and morbidity caused by diseases and injuries.

“These new estimates are another reminder that we need to rapidly step up prevention, diagnosis and treatment of noncommunicable diseases,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “They highlight the urgency of drastically improving primary health care equitably and holistically. Strong primary health care is clearly the foundation on which everything rests, from combatting noncommunicable diseases to managing a global pandemic.”

The study said the results clearly highlight the need for an intensified global focus on preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases, as well as tackling injuries, in all regions of the world, as set out in the agenda for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Heart disease has remained the leading cause of death at the global level for the last 20 years. However, 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. Conversely, the European region has seen a relative decline in heart disease, with deaths falling by 15%.

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

Deaths from diabetes increased by 70% globally between 2000 and 2019, with an 80% rise in deaths among males. In the Eastern Mediterranean, deaths from diabetes have more than doubled and represent the greatest percentage increase of all WHO regions.

In 2019, pneumonia and other lower respiratory infections were the deadliest group of communicable diseases and together ranked as the fourth leading cause of death. However, compared to 2000, lower respiratory infections were claiming fewer lives than in the past, with the global number of deaths decreasing by nearly half a million.

“This reduction is in line with a general global decline in the percentage of deaths caused by communicable diseases,” explained the report. “For example, HIV/AIDS dropped from the 8th leading cause of death in 2000 to the 19th in 2019, reflecting the success of efforts to prevent infection, test for the virus and treat the disease over the last two decades.

“While it remains the fourth leading cause of death in Africa, the number of deaths has dropped by more than half, falling from over 1 million in 2000 to 435 000 in 2019 in Africa.”

Tuberculosis is also no longer in the global top 10, falling from 7th place in 2000 to thirteenth in 2019, with a 30% reduction in global deaths. Yet, it remains among the top 10 causes of deaths in the African and South-East Asian regions, where it is the 8th and 5th leading cause, respectively. Africa saw an increase in tuberculosis mortality after 2000, though this has started to decline in the last few years.

The new estimates also emphasize the toll that communicable diseases still take in low-income countries: 6 of the top 10 causes of death in low-income countries are still communicable diseases, including malaria (6th), tuberculosis (8th) and HIV/AIDS (9th). Meanwhile, in recent years, WHO reports highlight an overall concerning slow-down or plateauing of progress against infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.

The estimates confirm the growing trend for longevity. However while people are living longer it is not always in good health.

In 2019, people were living more than 6 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 5 of those additional years were lived in good health.

Indeed, 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,” warned the report. “Heart disease, diabetes, 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.”

“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,” added the report. “These new estimates clearly indicate where additional investments in services are most urgently needed.”

“Robust health data are critical to address inequalities, prioritise policies and allocate resources to  prevent disability and save lives,” said 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.”

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