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Non-Communicable Diseases Cause Most Deaths Worldwide

  • Lisa Schlein

A doctor from an international cardiac mission examines the x-ray of a patient's heart in the Degand Clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 15, 2012.

A doctor from an international cardiac mission examines the x-ray of a patient's heart in the Degand Clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 15, 2012.

GENEVA - The World Health Organization reports almost two-thirds of all global deaths are due to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases. The World Health Statistics Report provides information on the state of health in 194 countries.

Non-communicable diseases are not just a problem of wealthy countries. The World Health Organization says they mainly affect people in poorer countries, of whom half die before they reach the age of 70. Cardiovascular diseases are the most common cause of death, followed by cancers.

Data from 194 countries show one in three adults worldwide has elevated blood pressure, a condition that causes around half of all deaths from stroke and heart disease. In many African countries, it notes, as much as half the adult population has high blood pressure.

The World Health Organization says most of these people remain undiagnosed. As a consequence, they do not get treated with low-cost medications that could prevent disability or premature death from heart disease and stroke.

WHO Department of Health Statistics Director Ties Boerma said preventable risk factors that cause chronic disease are common across the world.

“Of course, tobacco is very well known," said Boerma. "Hypertension is very common all around the world and it has only been declining in high-income countries - elsewhere there is really no evidence of a decline. So, these risk factors - another group, of course, physical inactivity and poor diets are also very important. But this report also highlights the obesity epidemic.”

The report finds obesity has doubled in every region of the world between 1980 and 2008. It says one-half-billion people, 12 percent of the world’s population, are considered obese.

The highest obesity levels are in the Americas and the lowest in South-East Asia. Worldwide, women are more likely to be obese than men, making them at greater risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

WHO Mortality and Burden of Disease program coordinator Colin Mathers said it is difficult to design policies and interventions to tackle obesity.

“Obesity is a complex interplay of lifestyle, with availability of high-density caloric foods that people like to have and we probably evolved to where we really want to pack the calories on where they are available ... less activity. We are all sedentary, sitting around desks," added Mathers. "So, it is a very complex issue and it involves not only personal choices about whether you eat the extra pack of biscuits or not, but also environmental urban design.”

The World Statistics Report finds nearly five million fewer children are dying from diarrhea, measles, pneumonia and other infectious diseases than in 1990. It says maternal deaths have also declined.

The report says other advances have been made in reducing new cases of HIV infections, in cutting tuberculosis mortality by more than one-third since 1990 and in lowering malaria deaths.