Global life expectancies increase as infectious diseases and hunger wane
A sharp decline in deaths from malnutrition and infectious diseases like measles and tuberculosis has caused a shift in global mortality patterns over the past 20 years, according to a report published on Thursday, with far more of the world’s population now living into old age and dying from diseases mostly associated with rich countries, like cancer and heart disease.
The shift reflects improvements in sanitation, medical services and access to food throughout the developing world, as well as the success of broad public health efforts like vaccine programs. The results are striking: infant mortality declined by more than half from 1990 to 2010, and malnutrition, the No. 1 risk factor for death and years of life lost in 1990, has fallen to No. 8.
At the same time, chronic diseases like cancer now account for about two out of every three deaths worldwide, up from just over half in 1990. Eight million people died of cancer in 2010, 38 percent more than in 1990. Diabetes claimed 1.3 million lives in 2010, double the number in 1990.
As the Times notes, 33 percent of global deaths in 1990 were of people 70 or older. In 2010, that figure was 43 percent.
There are a few dark clouds, of course. Life expectancy in the United States didn’t grow as quickly as in other regions, though expectancy in New York City continues to outpace the rest of the country. Life expectancies in sub-Saharan Africa continue to lag behind the rest of the world, in part due to the spike of AIDS-related deaths over the last two decades. (See this graph comparing causes of death between 1990 and 2010.)
As the Telegraph notes, obesity is now responsible for more deaths than hunger in most of the world.
Across the world, there has been significant success in tackling malnutrition, with deaths down two-thirds since 1990 to less than a million by 2010.
But increasing prosperity has led to expanding waistlines in countries from Colombia to Kazakhstan, as people eat more and get less everyday exercise.
Dr Majid Ezzati, chair of global environmental health at Imperial College London, and one of the lead authors of the report, said: “We have gone from a world 20 years ago where people weren’t getting enough to eat to a world now where too much food and unhealthy food — even in developing countries — is making us sick.”
Which leads to another reason the news is a mixed blessing. Increased life expectancy of course means more people on the planet longer — as the world begins to see the increasingly stark effects of global warming on food production. This summer’s drought and its concomitant food shortages are a preview of what’s to come in other food-producing regions (like, say, Europe). The trend of people eating themselves into sickness can be combated with better education and food options. A trend of starvation due to scarcity is much tougher to fight. As is a trend of wider spread of infectious disease facilitated by warmer climates.
A few years ago, I attended an event at which Bill McKibben spoke. Something he said there has stayed with me: What if we are the peak of human civilization, at least for a few centuries? What if right now is as good as it gets? I’m a bit of a pessimist, but it’s easy to see how this life expectancy news might be something of an apex.
And now, to wash that taste out of your mouth, here is a tiny adorable puppy. May he live forever.
Philip Bump writes about the news for Gristmill. He also uses Twitter a whole lot.