Chris Murray and his group at the Institute of Health Metrics at the University of Washington have repeatedly shown that while global life expectancy is increasing (i.e., we are dying at ever older ages), the number of healthy years we live is not increasing as quickly. This week they released their latest Global Burden of Disease study in The Lancet, and Reuters picked up the story.
People around the world are living longer, but many are also living sicker lives for longer, according to a study of all major diseases and injuries in 188 countries.
General health has improved worldwide, thanks to significant progress against infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria in the past decade and gains in fighting maternal and child illnesses.
"The world has made great progress in health, but now the challenge is to invest in finding more effective ways of preventing or treating the major causes of illness and disability," said Theo Vos, a professor at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington who led the analysis.One of the problems is an increasingly less nutritious diet around the globe, as these same researchers pointed out earlier this year. But a broader issue that actually encompasses the changing diet is that of health literacy. I thought about this last week when I saw a National Academy Press report on this topic. The volume is a bit dry (albeit literate), but the topic is huge. Think about the people who don't understand the importance of vaccines, or cultures whose practices dealing with dead bodies contributes to the spread of disease (e.g., ebola in west Africa), or the lack of appreciation for the value of condoms in casual sexual intercourse. In our own research in Accra, the capital of Ghana, we found that adults in the city were not always sure how malaria is transmitted nor how best to protect themselves and their children from it. That is only a small step from those people who don't follow a prescribed medical regimen because they really aren't sure why they should--this is mainly what the National Academy of Sciences workshop report was about. We readily take for granted the things that others do for us that keep us healthier, but we aren't always so good at figuring out what is best for ourselves. In short, if we all became more health literate we would almost certainly close the gap between actual and healthy life expectancy.
The study's main findings were that global life expectancy at birth for both sexes rose by 6.2 years -- from 65.3 in 1990 to 71.5 in 2013. Healthy life expectancy at birth rose by 5.4 years -- from 56.9 in 1990 to 62.3 in 2013.