Life Expectancy Jumps Worldwide, Study Finds

On Friday, The Lancet published the most recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, which Direct Relief uses to better understand the changing health landscape our partner network faces and to set strategic priorities for our support.

Based on five years’ worth of exhaustive research by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the GBD provides the clearest, broadest and most detailed summary available of current trends in global health.

The most widely celebrated finding of the study indicates that life expectancy has jumped significantly throughout the world.  Compared with estimates from 1970, men and women alike have gained nearly ten years of expected life.  While this conclusion is a testament to a tremendous amount of dedicated work in medicine, technology, policy and public health practice, it arrives with a couple of important caveats.

Despite these amazing leaps, average life expectancy remains unequally distributed to a shocking degree. While countries like Bangladesh and Peru made truly enormous progress on the order of 20 years or more, particularly through improved family planning and maternal health, countries like Zimbabwe and Ukraine experienced decreases.  In Zimbabwe the primary cause of decreasing life expectancy was HIV/AIDS, while in Ukraine runaway alcoholism has led to widespread chronic disease.

Not only does the GBD examine length of life, but also quality of life. The GBD pioneered a health metric called the Disability Adjusted Life Year (DALY), which merges measurement of life expectancy with measurement of the years of life which may be lived with a disease or physical impairment.

By this standard, the good news of increasing life expectancy is also tempered by the conclusion that humans everywhere are living their longer lives burdened by higher rates of noncommunicable illness and injury.

While tremendous inroads have been made against respiratory infections, diarrheal disease, birth injuries and vaccine-preventable infections like measles, our aging populations have experienced explosive growth in cancer, heart disease, diabetes and mental health conditions like depression.

Direct Relief’s support for effective global health action targets the full range of top-level priorities identified by the GBD. While we continue to adjust, along with our partner network, to the increasing burden of noncommunicable illness, through programs aimed at preventing and treating diabetes in Latin America and the U.S., and rapid identification and treatment of Burkitt’s Lymphoma cancers in Africa, we remain committed to the ongoing work of stopping the infectious spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and reducing the burden from respiratory disease through innovative responses to childhood pneumonia.

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