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Noncommunicable Diseases Like Cancer and Diabetes Are the Top Causes of Death Globally: WHO


Why Global Citizens Should Care
The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for countries to invest in strong health care infrastructures. In order to achieve the United Nations' Global Goal 3 and ensure good health for all, it is important to have concrete data on causes of death. You can join us and take action on this issue here.

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancers and diabetes, are now the leading cause of death in the world, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2019 Global Health Estimates report published Wednesday. 

The top 10 diseases accounted for 55% of the 55.4 million deaths worldwide that were reported in 2019. 

It is important to understand which diseases people die from to measure how people live and to ensure that health care systems are prepared to respond to patients’ needs, according to the WHO.

The WHO defines NCDs as chronic diseases that are usually the result of genetic, physiological, environmental, and behavioral factors. In comparison, communicable diseases are transmitted between people, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and tropical diseases. 

At the global level, 7 of the 10 leading causes of death were NCDs in 2019. This is a dramatic rise from 2000, when only 4 of the top 10 diseases were classified as noncommunicable.

“These new estimates are another reminder that we need to rapidly step up prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of noncommunicable diseases,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said

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While the WHO’s list outlines the top causes of death globally, the leading causes of death within each country are varied. The causes of death across high-, middle-, and low-income countries show the difference between lifestyle and health care around the world.

In 2019, heart disease remained the number one killer globally and accounted for 16% of total diseases around the world, according to the report.

Heart disease has been the leading cause of death globally for the last 20 years. The number of people who died from the disease in 2019 rose to almost 9 million.

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For the first time, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia entered the top 10 causes of global death. The report also showed that women were more at risk of degenerative diseases, as 65% of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia deaths were women. 

Diabetes also entered the top 10 list in 2019. The number of people who died from the disease has increased by 70% since 2000. Men are more at risk of this disease and there was an 80% rise in death among men in the past two decades.

While Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and diabetes are all classified as NCDs, none of them were among the top 10 causes of death in low- or middle-income countries.

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Deaths from communicable diseases declined globally from 2000 to 2019, however, they are still a challenge in lower- and middle-income countries. In low-income countries, 6 of the top 10 causes of death were communicable diseases.

HIV/AIDS was no longer listed among the top 10 global diseases in 2019. Deaths from HIV/AIDS have decreased by 51% globally since 2000. However, in low-income countries, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis remained in the top 10.

Dr. Samira Asma, assistant director-general for the division of data, analytics, and delivery for impact at the WHO, explained the importance of collecting data on worldwide deaths in the report.

“The WHO Global Health Estimates are a powerful tool to maximize health and economic impact,” she said. “We call upon governments and stakeholders to urgently invest in data and health information systems to support timely and effective decision-making.”