SCIENCE – Overeating now bigger global problem than lack of food

overeatingThe most comprehensive disease report ever produced confirms that, for the first time, there is a larger health problem from people eating too much than too little

FOR the first time, being overweight has become more of a global health burden than lack of nutrition.

That’s according to the largest ever study into the state of the world’s health. And that’s not all. The Global Burden of Disease report – a massive research effort involving almost 500 scientists in 50 countries – also concludes that we now have a grip on some common infectious diseases, which has saved millions of children from early deaths. Collectively, however, we are spending more of our lives living in poor health and with disability.

“This is the most comprehensive assessment of human health in the history of medicine,” says Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, which published the report last week. The report assessed the prevalence of diseases and causes of death across the globe in 2010, and compared these with data collected between 1970 and 1990.

In 1990, under nutrition was the leading cause of disease burden, measured as the number of years of healthy life an average person could expect to lose as a result of illness or early death. Back then, a high body-mass index (BMI), was ranked tenth. Now, under nutrition has dropped to eighth place, while BMI has risen to become the sixth leading cause of disease burden.

Being overweight can hike a person’s blood pressure and cause stroke and heart disease; together, these two conditions are responsible for a quarter of all deaths. And the problem isn’t limited to the west – the Middle East, for example, is seeing significant increases in BMI.

But while more of us may be overweight, we are also living longer. In some countries, the change has been huge – the Maldives, for example, has seen an increase in life expectancy of almost 30 years since the 1970s. Large improvements in life expectancy can also be seen in countries such as Bangladesh and Iran, in part due to new rural health programmes.

Progress in eliminating the causes of early childhood death – mainly infections, diarrhoea and birth problems – has been astounding. The rate of death in the under-5s has dropped by 60 per cent since 1990.

Sub-Saharan Africa is still experiencing high levels of mortality from HIV and malaria, but globally deaths from infectious diseases have dropped.

Problems that impact healthy ageing, like musculoskeletal pain and neurological conditions need future focus. There’s also a need to improve awareness of these conditions in the developing world, says Irene Agyepong at the University of Ghana in Accra. “We have to focus on it now rather than wait until it is upon us.”

NewScientist

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