Global Study Finds Longer Life Expectancy, Longer Periods with Illness and Disability

Life Expectancy

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study has been released, and it not only shows both a marked increase in life expectancy around the world, but also the continuing burden of illness and disability. The GBD is a regular study that consists of a comprehensive examination of the causes of illness, disability, and death globally. Although the current report notes huge gains in treating infectious diseases, lifestyle factors continue to play a large role in disability and illness.

Globally, the average life expectancy has risen from 61.7 years in 1980 to 71.8 years in 2015. These gains were largely attributed to reductions in HIV/AIDS and malaria deaths, as well as to reductions in neonatal birth complications and maternal disorders. Although global trends generally show reduced death rates from injuries, war and interpersonal conflict are taking more lives in certain regions like the Middle East.

Currently, about 70% of deaths are now caused by non-communicable diseases. This is a category that includes basically any illness that is not infectious, such as heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. The fact that these outcomes have large lifestyle components is not a coincidence, especially since high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity were leading risk factors for early death or illness in 2015. When looking for causes of ill health—rather than death—the leading causes were lower back and neck pain, sight and/or hearing loss, depression, and iron deficiency. Consequences of drug use, especially cocaine or opioids, are also large contributors. On the plus side, levels of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cervical cancer, ischemic heart disease, and asthma are showing drops.

What This Means

The GBD is a global assessment that shows how far we’ve come. For instance, HIV/AIDS, once a death sentence in the 80s, is now treatable; worldwide efforts are helping to bring prevention education and medicine to those most in need. Areas that need improvement, like the large contribution of lifestyle diseases as causes of death, are marked out quite clearly and should highlight the importance of preventative action by individuals. Living to a ripe, old age is now the norm, but the challenge will be ensuring that people can stay healthy throughout those extra years.

Wang, H., et. al., “Global, regional, and national life expectancy, all-cause mortality, and cause-specific mortality for 249 causes of death, 1980-2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2015,” The Lancet web site, 2016;