The Basics: Causes of Death

In the past I have written about how non-communicable i.e. non-infectious diseases make up four of the five global causes of mortality. I have also written about how this is, on the whole, a good thing. This article, although based on strong epidemiological data, is heavy laden in opinion.

The objective of this article is to provide a basic outline of the major causes of death. Everyone dies. And on more than a few occasions, I have heard the comments that all, in their own way, suggest that reducing mortality from specific disease causes is merely an exercise in pushing mortality from one disease cause to another; largely based on funding and location.

I wholly disagree with this sentiment.

It is my opinion that a major objective of improving global health is, beyond widening quality healthcare access for all, increasing the number of healthy life years lived by individuals and populations. In this regard, it is preferable to die of a stroke at older age than the next major influenza outbreak within the next five years, or tuberculosis, or pneumonia, or a lower respiratory tract infection. Moreover, the risk factors for most non-communicable diseases are generally modifiable.

The global reduction in childhood illnesses has been huge, although there is still much work to be done, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Case in point: Diarrheal diseases are no longer amongst the top 5 causes of death. (Can you believe that easily treatable, diarrheal diseases were, until recently, amongst the top 5 causes of death?)

I’m glad we no longer live in that world. And whilst cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are a major force to be reckoned with within the next 15 years of the SDG era, and likely beyond, based on current trends, we are all projected to live longer. And to me, that says ‘improvement’. Even HIV positive individuals, adherently monitored on Antiretroviral Treatment, are living longer: according to some studies, as long or even up to two years longer than average life expectancy.

Most recent estimates place the top 10 global causes of death as follows:

  1. Ischaemic Heart Disease
  2. Stroke
  3. COPD
  4. Lower Respiratory Tract Infections
  5. Trachea, Bronchus and Lung Cancers
  6. HIV/AIDS
  7. Diarrhoeal Diseases
  8. Diabetes Mellitus
  9. Road Injury
  10. Hypertensive Heart Disease

This is important. It is not important to memorize this list, per se, as they are constantly changing. But it is important; as understanding disease profiles and trends is invaluable to understanding the current, global health landscape.

In future articles I discuss the major problem this poses to health systems, economic development and economic stability for individuals and communities, particularly in low and middle-income settings.

For now, have a stellar Thursday!

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