Global life expectancy could be raised nearly five years by addressing just five health factors ““ unsafe sex, alcohol consumption, poor child nutrition, high blood pressure and lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene ““ according to a new report released Tuesday by the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO).
These five factors are responsible for nearly one-quarter of the estimated 60 million global deaths each year, said the WHO’s Global Health Risks report, which highlights various environmental, behavioral and physiological factors affecting health.
The report is based on extensive data from the WHO and other studies, and estimates the health effects of 24 risk factors by region, age, sex and country income for the year 2004, the most recent year in which data is available.
These health factors raised the risk of chronic diseases and deaths within “countries across all income groups — high, middle and low,” read the report.
The U.N. health agency listed the world’s top mortality risks as high blood pressure (responsible for 13 percent of deaths), tobacco use (9 percent), high blood glucose (6 percent), physical inactivity (6 percent), and obesity or being overweight (5 percent).
“The world faces some large, widespread and certain risks to health,” read the report.
Identifying and assessing these risks will help policy makers devise strategies to improve health in the most comprehensive and cost-effective ways, said Colin Mathers, the WHO’s Coordinator for Mortality and Burden of Disease.
“Understanding the relative importance of health risk factors helps governments figure out which health policies they want to pursue, ” he said.
“In many countries there is a complex mix of risk factors. Countries can combine this type of evidence along with information about policies and their costs to decide how to set their health agenda.”
“Health risks are in transition: populations are aging owing to successes against infectious diseases; at the same time, patterns of physical activity and food, alcohol and tobacco consumption are changing,” the WHO said.
“As health improves, gains can multiply,” said the Geneva-based agency in its report.
“Reducing the burden of disease in the poor may raise income levels, which in turn will further help to reduce health inequalities.”
Many deaths and diseases are caused by more than one risk factor, the report said, and could be prevented by reducing any of the individual factors.
The report found that eight risk factors account for over three-quarters of deaths from coronary heart disease, the world’s leading killer. These factors include high blood glucose, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, high blood pressure, high body mass index, high cholesterol, low fruit and vegetable intake and lack of physical activity. Most of these deaths occur in developing nations, the WHO said.
The report also found that nearly half of all cancer deaths worldwide are attributable to nine environmental and behavioral risks and seven infectious causes.
Meanwhile, “more than one-third of global child deaths can be attributed to a few nutritional risk factors such as childhood underweight, inadequate breastfeeding and zinc deficiency,” said Mathers.
While poor nutrition is a significant health risk among poorer countries, obesity and being overweight are even greater risks in wealthier nations, and are responsible for more deaths globally than being underweight.
The WHO said its study showed that health was becoming “globalized”, and warned that developing countries face a double burden of health risks.
For instance, while some risk factors such as smoking and obesity are typically associated with rich countries, more than three-quarters of the total global burden of diseases they cause take place in poor and developing nations.
“The poorest countries still face a high and concentrated burden from poverty, undernutrition, unsafe sex, unsafe water and sanitation,” it said.
“At the same time, dietary risk factors for high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity, coupled with insufficient physical activity, are responsible for an increasing proportion of the total disease burden.”
If the risks outlined in the report had not existed, average global life expectancy in 2004 would have been nearly a decade longer, the WHO said.
The WHO’s full Global Health Risks report can be viewed at http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/GlobalHealthRisks_report_full.pdf .