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Sep 25, 2015

Longer, But Not Necessarily Healthier, Lives

While life expectancy continues to rise, heart disease becomes the leading cause of disability around the world.

While global life expectancy has risen by more than six years since 1990, heart disease has become the No. 1 cause of illness and disability across the globe, according to a study published in The Lancet.

Conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, this study analyzed global data on major diseases and injuries from 1990–2013. Data originated from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, which published detailed information on death and disability from 188 countries.

The good news is that global life expectancy has risen from 65.3 in 1990 to 71.5 in 2013. As authors explain, much of these gains are due to declines in death and illness from HIV/AIDS and malaria in the past decade. We have also made strides in addressing issues like hunger, maternal disorders and communicable diseases, which has improved health around the world.

The catch is that while life expectancy stretches, these extra years are not necessarily healthy ones. On one hand, death and disability from infectious diseases like tuberculosis have dropped over the past few decades. At the same time, non-communicable diseases have taken over as the leading cause of illness and disability around the world.

According to findings, the top five global causes of illness and disability include heart disease, lower respiratory infection, stroke, low back and neck pain, and road injuries. Interestingly, researchers found that socioeconomic status does not explain the variation in heart disease between countries.

 “The world has made great progress in health,” says Professor Theo Vos of IHME, the study’s lead author. “But now the challenge is to invest in finding more effective ways of preventing or treating the major causes of illness and disability.” After all, the goal is not just to increase overall life expectancy but to add to the number of healthy, quality years we live.

IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray explains, “Factors including income and education have an important impact on health but don’t tell the full story. Looking at healthy life expectancy and health loss at the country level can help guide policies to ensure that people everywhere can have long and healthy lives no matter where they live.”

Questions for You to Consider

  • What are the traditional risk factors for heart disease?
  • Through decades of research, we’ve learned that certain factors increase risk for heart disease—some of which we can control and a few of which we can’t. Modifiable risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity and poor diet. Risk factors that we can’t control include age, gender, race or ethnicity and family history of heart disease. It’s important to address risk factors that we can control to help prevent heart disease.
  • How can I prevent heart disease?

  • The best ways to help prevent heart disease is by eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, quitting smoking (if a current smoker) and maintaining a healthy weight. Patients should also know their numbers, including blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, which are important to heart health.


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