Medical advances increase life expectancy but make people spend far more of their lives being ill

The health gains being made are masking a growing amount of illness, disability and deaths from non-communicable diseases

Andrew Griffin
Friday 07 October 2016 10:12
Two nurses sitting behind reception desk in London hospital
Two nurses sitting behind reception desk in London hospital

People are getting healthier, living longer – and spending more time with often debilitating illness and disability.

The gains in medical and health are masking an increasing amount of illness, disability and death from non-communicable diseases, according to a major new study.

Death rates from communicable diseases have fallen sharply, adding to a major overall increase in life expectancy. But that extra time appears to be spent more and more unhealthily.

The Global Burden of Disease study published in The Lancet found that healthy life expectancy had increased just steadily in 191 countries, meaning that people’s average life spans had increased by 6.1 years over the last 15.

But overall life expectancy has increased by 10.1 years over the same period. That suggests that people are now having longer lives, and much more of those lives spent living with ill health.

The findings echo concerns by some medical professionals that more and more time is being spent prolonging life at the expense of the quality of life that people have in their final years.

The study gathered data on on 249 causes of death, 315 diseases and injuries and 79 risk factors in 195 countries and territories between 1990 and 2015.

It found that seven out of every 10 deaths last year was caused by conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic kidney damage and Alzheimer’s. That was set against falling death rates from communicable diseases like HIV/Aids and malaria.

In 2015, 40 million global deaths - 70% of the total - were due to non-communicable diseases.

The total number of annual deaths had increased from about 48 million in 1990 to almost 56 million in 2015.

At the end of the study period, an estimated 1.2 million deaths were due to HIV/Aids, a reduction of a third since 2005. Malaria deaths had fallen by 37% since 2005, to 730,500 in 2015.

Study co-ordinator Dr Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, US, said: "Development drives, but does not determine health.

"We see countries that have improved far faster than can be explained by income, education, or fertility. And we also continue to see countries - including the United States - that are far less healthy than they should be given their resources."

Additional reporting by agencies

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