The Global Burden of Disease study found that while life expectancy is increasing, so too are the years people live in poor health.

The study found that  – combining the two extremes of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy eating in richer communities  – poor diet is linked to one in five deaths worldwide.
The study found that – combining the two extremes of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy eating in richer communities – poor diet is linked to one in five deaths worldwide. (AP archives)

Heart disease and tobacco ranked with conflict and violence among the world's biggest killers in 2016, while poor diets and mental disorders caused people the greatest ill health, a large international study has found.

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, published on Friday in The Lancet medical journal, found that while life expectancy is increasing, so too are the years people live in poor health. The proportion of life spent being ill is higher in poor countries than in wealthy ones.

"Death is a powerful motivator, both for individuals and for countries, to address diseases that have been killing us at high rates. But we've been much less motivated to address issues leading to illnesses," said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, which led the study.

Nearly three quarters of all deaths in 2016 were caused by non-communicable diseases, with heart disease related to restricted blood flow – 9.5 million deaths – the single biggest killer of all.

That's an increase of nearly 20 percent in a decade. 

Similarly, mortality due to another so-called "lifestyle" disease, diabetes, went up by more than 30 percent over the same period to 1.4 million.

Cancers – led by lung cancer – are also on the rise, accounting for nearly nine million deaths in 2016, 17 percent more than in 2006. 

Tobacco is blamed for 7.1 million of those fatalities.

A "triad of troubles" – obesity, conflict, and mental illness – is emerging as a "stubborn and persistent barrier to active and vigorous lifestyles," said Murray.

Global trends

Fewer children are dying before their fifth birthday and although humans are living longer than ever before, one in five deaths last year were linked to poor diet, according to researchers.

More than 1.6 million people in poor countries died in 2016 from diarrhoea caused by contaminated water and food, while another 2.4 million succumbed to lung infections that mostly could have been prevented or treated.

Another two million mothers and newborns perished due to complications at birth that rudimentary health care could have largely avoided.

AIDS and tuberculosis each claimed more than a million lives, while malaria killed over 700,000 people.

But trends have declined over the last decade for these communicable diseases. 

The same cannot be said for viral hepatitis, which killed 1.34 million people in 2016 –
22 percent more than in 2000, according to the World Health Organization.

"Hepatitis deaths can be avoided," said Raquel Peck, CEO of World Hepatitis Alliance, pointing out that no global facility exists to combat the disease and that most sufferers don't even know they have it.

Nearly 55 million people died in 2016, while 129 million were born, leaving a net gain of 74 million humans on the planet.

Global life expectancy last year was 75.3 years for women, and nearly 70 for men. 

The study also found that deaths from firearms, conflict and terrorism have increased globally, and that non-communicable, or chronic, diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes caused 72 percent of all deaths worldwide.

Mental illness

Mental illness was found to have a heavy toll on individuals and societies, with 1.1 billion people living with psychological or psychiatric disorders and substance abuse problems in 2016.

Major depression ranked among the top ten causes of ill health in all but four of the 195 countries and territories covered.

The studies, drawing from the input of 2,500 experts, also showed that one in seven people – 1.1 billion - are "living with mental health and substance use disorders." 

Mental health services are chronically underfunded in most nations, especially in the developing world.            

The GBD is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation global health charity and gives data estimates on some 330 diseases, causes of death and injuries in 195 countries and territories.            

Source: TRTWorld and agencies