Chronic Diseases are World's Leading Killer, WHO Says

In the United States, 87 percent of all deaths are due to noncommunicable diseases. Sixteen percent of the population smokes and 43 percent are physically inactive.

Noncommunicable diseases are the top cause of death worldwide, killing more than 36 million people in 2008, according to a new report released by the World Health Organization. Cardiovascular diseases were responsible for 48 percent of these deaths, cancers 21 percent, chronic respiratory diseases 12 percent, and diabetes 3 percent.

"This report indicates where each government needs to focus to prevent and treat the four major killers: cancer, heart disease and stroke, lung disease, and diabetes," said Ala Alwan, M.D., assistant director-general for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health at the World Health Organization.

The report, which provides data gathered from 193 countries, includes information on prevalence, trends in metabolic risk factors (cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, and blood sugar) alongside data on the country's capacity to tackle the diseases.

In 2008, more than nine million of all deaths attributed to NCDs occurred before the age of 60; 90 percent of these "premature" deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. One of the findings shows that men and women in low-income countries are around three times more likely to die of NCDs before the age of 60 than in high-income countries.

According to these estimates, the proportion of men dying under the age of 60 from NCDs can be as high as 67 percent. Among women under 60, the highest proportion was 58 percent.

The lowest rates of mortality from noncommunicable diseases for men under 60 were 8 percent and for women under 60 it was 6 percent.

The profiles report on the proportion of people who smoke and are physically inactive. They also indicate trends for four factors that increase people's risk of developing these diseases: blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index and blood sugar over the past 30 years.

In the United States, for example, 87 percent of all deaths are due to noncommunicable diseases. Sixteen percent of the population smokes and 43 percent are physically inactive. On average, blood pressure has decreased since 1980, body mass index has increased, and glucose levels have risen.

Overall, the trends indicate that in many high-income countries, action to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol is having an impact, but there is a need to do more on body mass index and managing diabetes.

The profiles show what countries are doing to tackle noncommunicable diseases in terms of institutional capacity, specified funding, and actions to address the four main diseases and their associated risk factors.

The report also highlights what countries need to do to reduce people's exposure to risk factors and improve services to prevent and treat noncommunicable diseases.

This report provides all countries with a baseline for monitoring epidemiological trends and assessing the progress they are making to address noncommunicable diseases. WHO plans to issue an updated report in 2013.

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