Five health risks hold the key to boosting life expectancy by five years – UN report

27 October 2009

Addressing five critical risk factors – underweight childhood, unsafe sex, alcohol use, lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and high blood pressure – could add almost five years to global life expectancy, according to a new United Nations report.

Addressing five critical risk factors – underweight childhood, unsafe sex, alcohol use, lack of safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and high blood pressure – could add almost five years to global life expectancy, according to a new United Nations report.

These five factors are responsible for one quarter of the 60 million deaths estimated to occur annually, said the UN World Health Organization (WHO), which published “Global Health Risks.”

A health risk is defined in the report as “a factor that raises the probability of adverse health outcomes.” It looked at 24 of them which are a mixture of environmental, behavioural and physiological factors – such as air pollution, tobacco use and poor nutrition – and estimated their effects on deaths, diseases and injuries by region, age, sex and country income for the year 2004.

The report also pointed to the combined effect of multiple risk factors, noting that many deaths and diseases are caused by more than one risk factor and may be prevented by reducing any of the risk factors responsible for them.

For example, eight risk factors alone account for over 75 per cent of cases of coronary heart disease, the leading cause of deaths worldwide.

These are alcohol consumption, high blood glucose, tobacco use, high blood pressure, high body mass index, high cholesterol, low fruit and vegetable intake and physical inactivity. WHO added that most of these deaths occur in developing countries.

“Understanding the relative importance of health risk factors helps governments to figure out which health policies they want to pursue,” said Colin Mathers, Coordinator for Mortality and Burden of Disease at WHO.

“In many countries there is a complex mix of risk factors,” he added. “Countries can combine this type of evidence along with information about policies and their costs to decide how to set their health agenda.”

The report also found, among others, that more than a third of the global child deaths can be attributed to a few nutritional risk factors such as underweight childhood, inadequate breastfeeding and zinc deficiency. Also, unhealthy and unsafe environments cause one in four child deaths worldwide.

In addition, 71 per cent of lung cancer deaths are caused by tobacco smoking, while obesity and being overweight causes more deaths worldwide than being underweight.

 

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