Study Says Longer Lifespans Plagued by Disease

A new study authored in part by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health claims that while people worldwide are living longer, they are living more of those years in poor health.

This week, contributors to the Global Burden of Disease project published new findings in the medical journal The Lancet that they say reveal key changes in the way people worldwide are living with and treating major health problems.

Joshua Salomon ’93, a professor of global health at HSPH who contributed to the study, said that he and other project researchers found that short lifespans are more frequently a product of chronic diseases than of infectious diseases or nutritional deficiencies.

“People are dying from adult diseases more than they are from diseases that kill children,” Salomon said.

According to Salomon, the study is the most comprehensive survey that has been conducted on current trends in global health. As part of the project, researchers distributed a survey that asked questions about the severity of 291 different diseases and injuries. The survey, developed with input from researchers from over 50 countries and distributed mainly online, received responses from over 160 countries and over 30,000 people worldwide.

After collecting their data, project researchers sought to develop tools to measure the impact of certain diseases on quality of life and life expectancy. Mohsen Naghavi, an associate professor of global health at the University of Washington, has worked on improving the quality, distribution, and presentation of the data that has been collected. Naghavi emphasized the importance of taking new approaches to studying diseases over time.

He said that much has changed about the field since 1990, when the first Global Burden of Disease results were released, to the next updated release of statistics in 2004, and again this year with data gathered in 2010.

Although life expectancy in most regions has increased by an average of about ten years since 1990, Salomon said he thinks that countries will have to consider the economic strain created by their rapidly aging populations. According to Salomon, the health issues most threatening today are not nutrition deficiency or infectious diseases, but non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer.

While Salomon said it is important to raise awareness of these issues, he warned against taking coordinated political action in response to the global trends identified in the report. He said that policymakers in every country will have to consider the areas of disease that are most serious to develop viable and affordable regional solutions.

“The results are not a direct prescription for policy,” Salomon said.

—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at