By Judy Foreman
A massive new study out today shows that around the world, people are living longer than they did 20 years ago, but there’s a catch: many of these extra years are spent in poor health — in some cases with conditions that might be preventable or treatable.
The collaborative project, published in a special issue of The Lancet and led by researchers at the University of Washington and a consortium including the Harvard School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that some of the old scourges of humankind — infectious disease and childhood illnesses — that were once the leading causes of death have decreased dramatically, even in many developing areas. Deaths among children under five used to be the biggest contributor to the world’s health burden; now it’s chronic diseases that cause severe pain, impair mobility or keep people from seeing, hearing and “thinking clearly,” as the university put it in a statement.
But as childhood deaths have decreased, there has been a troubling increase in deaths among young adults, those aged 15 to 49 – mainly because of violence and HIV/AIDS. And while malnutrition – including starvation – used to be the leading risk factor for death worldwide, now it’s the opposite that’s the big threat: poor diets and physical inactivity. In fact, dietary risk factors and physical inactivity now account for a whopping 10 percent of the world’s health burden, as excess weight and high blood sugar continue to soar.
As some health problems have lessened worldwide between the new study, called the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 and its predecessor in 1990, others have soared, chief among them lower back pain and road accidents. The latest research, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was a massive endeavor with 486 authors from 302 institutions and more than 30,000 survey participants in more than 100 countries. It resulted in seven scientific papers being published together.
In statistical terms, what’s happening is that although life expectancy from birth is still increasing all around the world, what might be called the “healthspan” is not keeping pace. In other words, we are living longer, but some of those “extra” years are years of pain, sickness, immobility, depression, anxiety and other forms of poor health. Continue reading