WASHINGTON, United States, Monday December 22, 2014 – The average life expectancy for men and women around the world has risen by about six years over the past two decades, according to the findings of one of the most comprehensive studies of global health ever conducted.
The increase is mainly due to advances in health care, with longer lifespans in richer countries largely attributed to a drop in deaths related to heart disease, and poorer countries experiencing declines in the death of children from ailments such as malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea.
Yet while global deaths from infectious disease dropped by about 25 percent during the period under review, the number of deaths linked to non-communicable diseases increased by about 40 percent.
Non-communicable diseases, often related to diet and lifestyle and including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, tend to be chronic and debilitating and are often more expensive to treat.
“That’s a very profound shift and it will affect how countries deal with the future health of their populations,” said Christopher Murray, lead author of the study and director of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, which oversaw the analysis.
The research was part of the Global Burden of Disease Study conducted by an international team of more than 700 researchers led by IHME and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The study, which was published last week in the journal Lancet, analysed annual deaths from 240 different causes in 188 countries from 1990 to 2013.
Scientists use the data to decide what areas of medical research to pursue; governments use the data to make policy decisions, and donors use the data to decide which areas of global health they should support.
Overall, the latest IHME study estimates that global life expectancy for men increased by 5.8 years and 6.6 years for women.
In India, which is predicted to become the world’s most populous country in less than twenty years, life expectancy increased from 57.3 years to 64.2 years for males, and from 58.2 years to 68.5 years for females, according to the study.
In many places, improved disease prevention and treatment efforts have seen mortality rates plummet. Deaths from diarrhoea alone have fallen by 51 percent.
The exception is southern sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS has shortened lifespans by an average of five years since 1990.
In spite of significant strides in prevention and treatment, HIV/AIDS remains the biggest cause of premature death in more than a dozen sub-Saharan countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) compiles similar data, with its last update of health statistics published earlier this year and spanning the 2000-12 period.
While it lacked the extensive sweep of the IHME analysis, the WHO also concluded that the average global life expectancy had increased by six years since 1990.