What's Most Likely To Kill You? Hint: Probably Not An Epidemic

Jan 19, 2015
Originally published on January 21, 2015 7:34 pm

Noncommunicable diseases have become the leading killers around the globe. In 2012, two-thirds of all deaths worldwide were the result of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory infections. The mortality rate from noncommunicable diseases was even higher in low- and middle-income countries.

What is it that's most likely to kill you? The World Health Organization says that in the 21st century, it's your lifestyle.

And it's not just a Western problem.

Around the world, lifestyles are changing rapidly — and not for the better. In low-income countries, diets are shifting to foods heavy in salt and fat. People working behind computers instead of plows are less active. Economic growth isn't always a plus for your health. Bigger paychecks can lead to drinking way too much.

Dr. Shanthi Mendis with the World Health Organization in Geneva says the threat of noncommunicable diseases is the biggest health challenge on the globe right now.

"It's a slow-motion public health disaster, seemingly invisible and rapidly gathering speed," she says. "The important thing to remember is it's not just killing a couple of thousands of people. It's killing millions, and it's going to kill millions for decades."

The No. 1 killer is cardiovascular disease, mainly heart attacks and strokes.

If people would change their diet, exercise more and get screened each year for risk factors, many of these heart attacks could be avoided, Mendis says.

WHO is now sending a message to the governments of the world: Put in place policies to try to cut salt intake, increase physical activity and reduce smoking.

"These diseases ... pose a much greater public health problem than any epidemic known to man," Mendis says. Indeed, in 2012, two-thirds of all deaths worldwide were the result of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory infections.

The mortality rate from noncommunicable diseases was even higher in low- and middle-income countries. These diseases are also making it harder for individuals — and countries — to rise out of poverty.

"Sixteen million people are dying in the 40s, 50s, 60s [each year]," Mendis says. So their productive years are turning into destructive years.

One positive note is that mortality rates from noncommunicable diseases are lower in high-income countries. That's because those countries began to address lifestyle issues decades ago, she says.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The World Health Organization says that in the 21st century your lifestyle is what will most likely kill you. In recent years, two thirds of all deaths worldwide were the result of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory infections. The mortality rate from these diseases was the highest in the developing world. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that the WHO believes many of these deaths could be prevented.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Around the world lifestyles are changing dramatically, but often in ways that are not healthy. As low-income countries grow, people can afford to eat more foods that are heavy in fats and salt. As jobs shift away from agriculture, people are less active. Economic growth isn't always a plus for your health. Bigger paychecks can lead at times to drinking way too much. Doctor Shanthi Mendis with the World Health Organization in Geneva says the biggest health challenges on the globe right now aren't coming from a virus or parasite. They're coming from noncommunicable diseases.

SHANTHI MENDIS: It's a slow-motion public health disaster seemingly invisible and rapidly gathering speed. And the important thing to remember is it is not killing just a couple of thousands of people. It's killing millions, and it's going to kill millions for decades.

BEAUBIEN: The leading killers are cardiovascular diseases.

MENDIS: And when you say cardiovascular diseases, they are mainly heart attacks and strokes.

BEAUBIEN: She says many of these could be prevented by getting people to change their diet, exercise more and show up for annual physical exams. The WHO is pushing an initiative to try to get countries around the world to focus on reducing these disease rates. The initiative calls on governments to put in place policies to try to cut salt intake, increase physical activity and reduce smoking.

MENDIS: These diseases - they pose a much greater public health problem than any epidemic known to man.

BEAUBIEN: And she says beyond public health, they also trap individuals in poverty and hurt economic growth.

MENDIS: 60 million people are dying in the 40s, 50s, 60s. These people are dying in their productive years.

BEAUBIEN: Mortality rates for heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer and these other diseases are lower in high income countries, which Mendis attributes to those countries starting to address lifestyle diseases decades ago. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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