Worldwide, healthy life expectancy can be increased by five to 10 years if governments and individuals make combined efforts against the major health risks in each region, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in its yearly report, published this week.
Identifying some of the major global risks to disease, disability and death in the world today, 'The World Health Report 2002 - Preventing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life', found that even in the richer developing countries, such as Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, healthy life spans would increase by about five years if prevention programmes were put in place.
Included among the top 10 global health risks are childhood and maternal underweight, high blood pressure, tobacco, alcohol, high cholesterol, iron deficiency and obesity. Along with the remaining global risks, such as unsafe sex and sanitation, these account for about 40 per cent of the 56 million deaths that occur worldwide annually and one-third of global loss of healthy life years, noted the report.
It added that these leading risks are comparatively much more important than widely believed. Pointing out that about half a million people in North America and Western Europe die from overweight/obesity-related diseases every year, the WHO warned that the "cost of inaction is serious," predicting that unless action is taken, by the year 2020 there will be 5 million deaths attributable to overweight and obesity, compared to 3 million now.
"Globally, we need to achieve a much better balance between preventing disease and merely treating its consequences," said Dr Christopher Murray, executive director of WHO's Global Programme on Evidence for Health Policy and overall director of World Health Report 2002. "This can only come about with concerted action to identify and reduce major risks to health."
The WHO emphasised that each risk is also a prevention opportunity, and the potential for prevention from tackling major known risks is clearly substantial, and much greater than commonly thought.
For example, worldwide, high blood pressure is estimated to cause 7.1 million deaths, about 13 per cent of the global fatality total. Across WHO regions, research indicates that about 62 per cent of strokes and 49 per cent of heart attacks are caused by high blood pressure.
High cholesterol is estimated to cause about 4.4 million deaths (7.9 per cent of total), although its effects often overlap with high blood pressure. This amounts to 18 per cent of strokes and 56 per cent of global ischemic heart disease.
The World Health report urged countries to adopt policies and programmes to promote population-wide interventions like reducing salt in processed foods, cutting dietary fat, encouraging exercise and higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and lowering smoking. It added that these are the most cost-effective interventions identified to reduce cardiovascular disease.
"Our new research finds that many established approaches to cutting CV disease risk factors are very inexpensive, so that even countries with limited health budgets can implement them and cut their CV disease rate by 50 per cent," said Dr Derek Yach, executive director of the Cluster on Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health.
"Although the report carries some ominous warnings, it also opens the door to a healthier future for all countries - if they're prepared to act boldly now," added Dr Murray.
"This report brings out for the first time that 40 per cent of global deaths are due to just the 10 biggest risk factors, while the next 10 risk factors add less than 10 per cent," said Dr Alan Lopez, WHO senior science advisor and co-director of the Report. "This means we need to concentrate on the major risks if we are to improve healthy life expectancy by about 10 years, and life expectancy by even more."
"We surprised even ourselves in how far-reaching the health benefits can be if governments and health systems adopt our recommendations," said Dr Murray. "WHO believes that the wide distribution of this report should become a prime goal of all Member States."