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Longer Life Comes With Risk of More Illnesses, Study Says

First the good news: people are living longer than they did 20 years ago. The bad news? The extra years are marred by illness, according to the largest study of global health trends in history.

Over the last two decades, life expectancy rose to 67.5 from 62.8 for men and 73.3 from 68.1 for women worldwide, the study, published in the journal The Lancet today, found. Still, the gap between years lived and the number of those years in which people enjoy good health widened, to 9.2 for men and 11.5 for women.

The study, written by almost 500 researchers from 50 countries, shows that economic development is a two-edged sword: while bugs and viruses kill humans far less often than they used to, poor diets and bad habits are taking their place.

That’s putting medical systems worldwide in a “train-wreck scenario,” said Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We should live as long as we can and as healthy as we can until the last day of life, and that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Piot said at a briefing in London today.

Leading Causes

Heart disease and stroke were still the two leading causes of death globally in 2010, just as they were 20 years earlier, the study found. But while infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria have dropped down the list of killers, lung cancer and diabetes have climbed as salty food, smoking and alcohol use replace childhood malnutrition and household air pollution as the major health threats.

Researchers also examined the prevalence of disability. In 2010, the two most prevalent disease categories responsible for disability were musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis and back pain, and mental disorders including depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse.

“It is important to realize that health is more than avoiding death,” Alan Lopez and Theo Vos of the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health, said in a statement. “As health-care costs are rising fast, it is essential to provide governments with adequate information on how best to prioritize their health services.”

African Exception

Sub-Saharan Africa remains an exception to the global trend. The average age of death increased by less than 10 years in most of the region between 1970 and 2010, compared with more than 25 years in Latin America, Asia and North Africa, the study found.

While most of the world battles obesity, being underweight remains the leading risk in the world’s poorest region, and infectious diseases such as HIV, malaria and diarrhea are among the top killers.

“We still have the challenge of the communicable diseases, and my region, sub-Saharan Africa, is really trailing the world on this,” Irene Agyepong, a public health expert at the Ghana Health Service, said at the briefing.

The study, called the Global Burden of Disease, was led by researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It also involved scientists from the World Health Organization, the Harvard School of Public Health, Imperial College London, the University of Tokyo, the University of Queensland and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor and the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, is an alumnus and benefactor of Johns Hopkins University. Bloomberg School of Public Health is named in his honor.

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