Top risk factors for death across the globe

Smoking risk factor
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While this may sound gloomy, a comprehensive 25-year study of global disease data has a bright side.

An enormous international study of causes of death has revealed that since 1990, there has been a remarkable change in what is killing people across the planet.

Conducted by an international consortium of scientists working on the Global Burden of Disease project and led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the researchers discovered that behavioral, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks now account for half of global mortality. While some of these things would require a lot of effort to change, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Looking at 79 risks across 188 countries for the years between 1990 and 2013, the study paints a fascinating picture of the risk factors behind death, of which numbers have risen from 25 million in 1990 to 31 million deaths in 2013.

In 1990, child and maternal malnutrition and unsafe water, sanitation, and lack of hand washing were the leading risks for death – by 2013 those had switched to dietary risks and high blood pressure.

A summary of what risk factors are most prevalent in which parts of the world reveals much:

  • Middle East and Latin America: High body mass index is the number-one risk associated with health loss.
  • South and Southeast Asia: Household air pollution is a leading factor in death.
  • India: Unsafe water and childhood under-nutrition present the most serious risks.
  • Russia: Alcohol is the number-two risk here.
  • United Kingdom and other high-income countries: Smoking is the number one risk.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: Unlike other parts of the world, here the risks are a combination of childhood malnutrition, unsafe water and lack of sanitation, unsafe sex, and alcohol use.
  • South Africa: Unsafe sex was a more significant risk here than any other country; 38 per cent of South African deaths were attributed to unsafe sex. The global burden of unsafe sex grew from 1990 and peaked in 2005.
  • Australia: For both men and women in Australia the top risks are high blood pressure, smoking, high body mass index, and high fasting plasma glucose.
  • Globally: Low weight claimed the life of one in five of children under five-years-old, stressing the significance of child malnutrition as a risk factor.
  • Globally: Unsafe sex took a huge toll on global health, contributing to 82 per cent of HIV/AIDS deaths and 94 per cent of HIV/AIDS deaths among 15- to 19-year-olds in 2013.

"There's great potential to improve health by avoiding certain risks like smoking and poor diet as well as tackling environmental risks like air pollution," IHME Director Dr Christopher Murray said. "The challenge for policymakers will be to use what we know to guide prevention efforts and health policies."

The findings are published in The Lancet.

Top risk factors for death across the globe
While this may sound gloomy, a comprehensive 25-year study of global disease data has a bright side.

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