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Leading Causes of Death Worldwide: Non-communicable Diseases

The year of 2020 was full of hardships, particularly for those with an increased susceptibility for COVID-19 because they had to take extra precautions to avoid catching the virus. This includes those with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), whose conditions increase their risk of contracting the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that preventing and treating NCDs must be given priority in 2021 as the pandemic continues to expose the link between NCDs and communicable diseases.

What are noncommunicable diseases?

NCDs are chronic diseases that can be caused by various factors: genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioral. Chronic diseases last for more than a year and require ongoing medical attention. NCDs include cardiovascular diseases (e.g. heart attacks and stroke), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (e.g. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma), diabetes, and more.

Here are some quick facts about NCDs:

  • They contribute to 71% of all global deaths

  • 15 million people between the ages of 30 and 69 die from an NCD

  • Most NCD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries

  • Rank of NCDs in terms of annual deaths: cardiovascular diseases (17.9 million), cancers (9 million), respiratory diseases (3.9 million), and diabetes (1.6 million)

What are the risk factors?

There are two types of risk factors: modifiable and metabolic.

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • Excessive tobacco use

  • Excessive salt/sodium intake

  • Excessive alcohol use

  • Physical inactivity

Metabolic risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Obesity

  • Hyperglycemia (high blood glucose levels)

  • Hyperlipidemia (high fat levels in the blood)

Do other factors impact NCDs?

Socioeconomic status - Socially disadvantaged people are more likely to be exposed to harmful products, such as tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy diets, and have limited access to healthcare. Because of this, socioeconomically disadvantaged are more vulnerable to NCDs than those in higher socioeconomic positions.

Aging - NCDs are exacerbated by aging, which is a key predictor of mortality

Urbanization - There has been a population shift from rural to urban areas, which causes a change in lifestyle. This can lead to the development of obesity, stroke, cancer and other NCDs. Additionally, mechanization of life can cause a decrease in physical activity.

Developed vs. Developing countries - NCDs accounted for roughly 33.4 million deaths worldwide in 2002; 72% of these deaths occurred in developing countries. Even today, developing countries are disproportionately affected due to factors such as aging, urbanization, poverty and more.

What are the preventative measures?

All age groups are vulnerable to NCDs so it is important to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle to prevent acquiring them. Unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles can increase blood pressure and blood glucose, which can lead to cardiovascular diseases.

Consume a healthy diet by limiting the following:

  • Fat intake between 15% and 30% of total energy intake

  • Carbohydrates between 55% and 75% of daily intake

  • Iodized salt intake to less than 5g daily

  • Fruit and vegetables intake to at least 400 g daily

  • Protein intake of 10-15% of daily intake

Physical activity can protect against obesity and diabetes. 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days is recommended. Activities can include walking, jogging, bicycling, swimming, and more.

NCD prevention goes beyond the individual level as it requires global attention. WHO is committed to developing a national response to reduce premature mortality from NCDs by one-third by 2030. Here are some recommendations to achieve this:

  • Establish national networks for NCD prevention and control

  • Monitor the progress of national NCD prevention activities

  • Implement global strategies for diet, physical activity and health

  • Implement policies and programs for tobacco control

  • Initiate community based intervention for NCD prevention

  • Develop a surveillance system to generate representative data on risk factors and mortality



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