Here Are the Top Causes of Death Worldwide

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Worldwide, people are living longer. But while overall deaths from infectious diseases and preterm birth are decreasing, deaths from heart disease, conflict and terrorism are on the rise, according to a new report.

The report, called the Global Burden of Disease study, examines the state of the world's health by estimating average life expectancy as well as the number of deaths, illnesses and injuries from more than 300 causes.

The report found that today, the average global life expectancy is 72.5 years (75.3 years for women and 69.8 years for men.) That's up from an average life expectancy of 65.1 years in 1990 and 58.4 years in 1970, the report said. Japan had the highest life expectancy in 2016, at 83.9 years, while the Central African Republic had the lowest, at 50.2 years. [Extending Life: 7 Ways to Live Past 100]

Overall, there were 54.7 million deaths worldwide in 2016. Nearly three-quarters (72.3 percent) of those deaths were from so-called "noncommunicable diseases," or those that cannot pass from person to person, including heart disease, stroke and cancer.

About 19 percent of deaths in 2016 were from communicable diseases, maternal diseases (which occur during pregnancy and childbirth), neonatal diseases (which occur around the newborn period) and nutritional diseases (which include nutritional deficiencies); about 8 percent of deaths were from injuries.

From 2006 to 2016, the total number of deaths from communicable, maternal, neonatal and nutritional diseases (which the researchers call "CMNN") decreased by nearly 24 percent. In particular, there's been substantial progress in reducing deaths among children under age 5 years old, who often die from respiratory infections or complications from early birth, the report said. In 2016, the number of deaths among children under age 5 dropped below 5 million for the first time in modern history — down from 11 million deaths in 1990 and 16.4 million deaths in 1970, the researchers said. Deaths from HIV/AIDS among both children and adults have also declined, by 46 percent since 2006, and deaths from malaria have declined by 26 percent since 2006.

However, the total number of deaths from noncommunicable diseases increased by 16 percent from 2006 to 2016, meaning there were an extra 5.5 million deaths from these conditions in 2016 compared to 10 years earlier. Ischemic heart disease was the leading cause of death, resulting in nearly 9.5 million deaths in 2016, an increase of 19 percent since 2006. Diabetes also caused 1.4 million deaths in 2016, up 31 percent since 2006.

Although the rate of death (which takes into account the total number of people worldwide) from noncommunicable diseases declined from 2006 to 2016, it did not decline as much as the rate of death from CMNN. (During the 10-year period, the rate of death from CMNN declined 32 percent, while the rate of death from noncommunicable diseases declined only 12 percent, the study said.)

"Patterns of global health are clearly changing, with more rapid declines in CMNN conditions than for other diseases and injuries," the researchers wrote in the Sept. 14 issue of the journal The Lancet. Although the reduction in CMNN deaths is "laudable," the findings suggest that noncommunicable diseases, "which cause very substantial mortality in young and middle-aged adults, need to receive much greater policy priority," the researchers said.

In addition, since 2006, the number of deaths from conflict and terrorism has risen significantly, reaching 150,500 deaths in 2016 (which is a 143 percent increase since 2006), the researchers said. This rise is largely a result of conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, the scientists said.

Rates of death also increased for opioid use, amphetamine use and other drug use disorders in some locations — particularly in high-income countries, the researchers said. Overall, 1.1 billion people worldwide have some type of mental health or substance use disorder, the report found.

"Our findings indicate people are living longer and, over the past decade, we identified substantial progress in driving down death rates from some of the world's most pernicious diseases and conditions, such as under-age-5 mortality and malaria," Dr. Christopher Murray, co-author of the report and director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in a statement. "Yet, despite this progress, we are facing a 'triad of trouble' holding back many nations and communities — obesity, conflict, and mental illness, including substance use disorders."

The study was coordinated by the IHME and involved more than 2,500 collaborators from 130 countries and territories.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.