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Global Burden of Disease – twenty years of ground-breaking health data

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The Global Burden of Disease study is the world’s largest systematic, scientific effort to quantify the magnitude of health loss from all major diseases, injuries, and risk factors. Recently it was the 20th anniversary of this ground-breaking research, so it is a good time reflect on how much it has benefited the public health world.

Data from the study can be broken down by age, sex, and population and critically on global, national and local levels.

Over the years, GBD has taught us about what kills and causes illness and what the risk factors behind these are. It has played a crucial role in influencing health policy, impacting research and educating us on where we need to focus our energy to make the biggest difference to the public’s health. It is a fantastic example of where research meets policy and how decision making can be impacted by evidence.

While the data from GBD is a pivotal foundation, in order to achieve longer, healthier lives for people, we need to be able to build up the picture of what is behind disability, years spent in ill health and ultimately death. This can include factors such as living conditions, geography, neighbourhoods and a person’s start in life. We commonly call these social determinants.

In the UK, we’ve learnt through GBD that we have people in certain areas enjoying some of the best health in the world, yet in other areas people are dying before their time and spending more years in poor health.

To further our work in this area and drill down into the underlying causes, we published our first Health Profile for England this year. The profile lays out the health issues that people in the poorest areas face and how they differ to those in the wealthiest and exactly where our energies must focus to close these gaps and drive up not only life expectancy, but the number of years people spend living in good health.

The GBD study has recently published its latest data, which is composed of five peer-reviewed papers, and for the UK we learned that:

  • A UK man born in 2016 can expect to live 79 years, an increase in life expectancy of 1.8 years over the past decade. A woman has a life expectancy of 82.9 years, up 1.4 years from 2006.
  • But illness and injuries take away years of healthy life. A British male born in 2016 will live approximately 69.1 years in good health; a female only 71 years.
  • The top five causes of premature death in the UK are ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and Alzheimer’s. The ailments that cause illness can be very different. Back pain, migraines, and hearing loss are the top causes of years that people live with disability in UK.

Moreover, in 2016, for the first time in modern history, fewer than 5 million children under age 5 died in one year globally, as compared to 1990 when 11 million died.

Again we are being reminded that despite living longer, much of that extra time is spent in ill-health. This latest update underlines the importance of preventing the conditions that keep people out of work and put their long term health in jeopardy, like musculoskeletal problems, poor hearing and mental ill-health.

Research such as GBD and the work that has gone into the Health Profile for England has allowed us to prioritise and focus on areas which will help people, in early life as well as those in middle age, to have the best chance of living a longer, healthier life.




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