The Biggest Cause of Death Around the World Is Something We Can Fix

An analysis of 23 years of data from 188 countries reveals the top killers of people across the globe.

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Sep 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When New York City officials voted this week to require chain restaurant menus to have saltshaker icons next to items with more than 2,300 mg of sodium, salt industry advocates complained (to the surprise of no one) about the seemingly nanny state–style move. But more initiatives like that may be needed, because our habit of chowing down on unhealthy foods has become the biggest contributor to death around the globe.

That’s the sobering finding of a new study published Friday in the medical journal The Lancet. Researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington examined data on 79 risk factors—from behaviors such as smoking and drinking soda to environmental issues such as air pollution and unsafe water—in 188 countries between 1990 and 2013.

Overall, the number of people dying as a result of the risk factors examined jumped from 25.1 million in 1990 to 30.8 million in 2013. However, the researchers found that 14 risk factors related to poor diet—not eating enough fruit or whole grains, drinking sugary beverages, and eating red meat, for example—contributed to 21 percent of deaths worldwide in 2013.

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The finding is backed up by an array of studies showing that eating a salt-, sugar-, and fat-laden diet is known to cause illnesses such as high blood pressure and obesity, which then trigger heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But put down the saltshaker: High blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor associated with mortality for both men and women.

The number of deaths attributable to the ailment jumped to 10.4 million in 2013 from 1990—a nearly 50 percent increase. Although the World Health Organization has called for the reduction of salt consumption, a key factor in high blood pressure, the issue “needs a stronger and more coherent global response,” the study’s authors wrote. (No kidding.)

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Both men and women are dying from high blood pressure, but there are significant differences between how other risk factors play out between the genders. Smoking, for example, killed 4.4 million men in 2013, making it the second-most-significant risk factor for them. But puffing on cancer sticks is only the sixth-biggest cause of death for women—1.4 million died worldwide from cigarettes in 2013, according to the study. Meanwhile, alcohol use is the 10th-biggest risk factor for men, while for women, it’s not a significant issue.

The researchers also found significant variances in mortality risks around the world. Across the Middle East and Latin America, a high body mass index is the greatest risk of health loss. In South and Southeast Asia, household air pollution—mainly from use of solid fuels—is the greatest risk, while people in India are dealing with unsafe water and childhood undernutrition. In sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers found childhood undernutrition, unsafe water and sanitation, unsafe sex, and alcohol consumption are leading risk factors.

What’s particularly stunning about these findings is how many of the risk factors are avoidable. While people may not be able to easily avoid drinking polluted water or breathing in smog while walking down a vehicle-choked street, they can make the choice to ditch a typical fast-food meal of a burger, fries, and soda for whole grains, fruits, and veggies.

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“There’s great potential to improve health by avoiding certain risks like smoking and poor diet as well as tackling environmental risks like air pollution,” Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said in a statement. “The challenge for policymakers will be to use what we know to guide prevention efforts and health policies.”