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You Might Be Surprised by What Kills Us

The biggest killer globally is heart disease, but overall, life expectancy is longer and fewer people are dying prematurely, especially kids younger than 5.
Image: A patient receives care at El Nuevo San Juan Health Center
A patient receives care at El Nuevo San Juan Health Center, one of 10 clinics operated in New York City by Urban Health Plan. John Brecher / NBC News

Heart disease is by far the No. 1 killer around the world, and much of it is caused by poor eating and other bad habits, researchers reported Thursday.

The latest look at what is killing people around the world has a lot of good news, however. Infectious diseases such as the AIDS virus and malaria are killing fewer people and childhood death rates have hit a new low, the international team, led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, reported.

“Our findings indicate people are living longer and, over the past decade, we identified substantial progress in driving down death rates from some of the world’s most pernicious diseases and conditions, such as under age-5 mortality and malaria,” IHME director Dr. Christopher Murray said in a statement.

Fewer than 5 million children under the age of 5 died in 2016, way down from 16.4 million in 1970.

“Yet, despite this progress, we are facing a triad of trouble holding back many nations and communities – obesity, conflict, and mental illness, including substance use disorders,” Murray added.

The team of hundreds of researchers crunched all the numbers they could get from as many countries around the world as possible. They’re still not working with complete data, but they can paint a fairly complete picture of how long people live, what they die of, and where people are likeliest to lead long, healthy lives.

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“Today, the average global life expectancy for women is 75.3 years, and 69.8 years for men. Japan has the highest life expectancy (83.9 both sexes combined), and the Central African Republic has the lowest (50.2 years),” they wrote in their report, published in the Lancet medical journal.

Since 1970, men have added 13.5 years to their average life expectancy globally and women have added nearly 15 years.

“The highest life expectancy was in Singapore for men, at 81.3 years and in Japan for women, at 86.9 years,” they wrote. Men in Lesotho have the lowest life expectancy — just 47, on average.

“Poor diets were associated with nearly 1 in 5 of all deaths."

U.S. life expectancy for someone born in 2016 is 76 for men and 81 for women. That’s comparable to the Czech Republic. A U.S. man who is now 65 can expect to live another 18 years; a woman can expect to live another 20. In Canada, life expectancy is nearly 80 for men and 84 for women. In France, it’s 79 and 85.

Most premature deaths globally are caused by heart disease, which is also the No. 1 killer in the U.S. Globally, about 9.5 million people died of heart disease in 2016, which is up 19 percent in 10 years.

Many of the causes are people's own habits.

“Tobacco was responsible for more than 7.1 million deaths,” the team wrote.

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“Poor diets were associated with nearly 1 in 5 of all deaths. In particular, diets low in whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, fish oils and high in salt were the most common dietary risk factors. In addition, high blood glucose, high blood pressure, high body mass index, and high total cholesterol were all in the top ten leading risk factors for death for men and women globally.”

Diabetes, also often caused by poor diet, weight gain and a lack of exercise, killed 1.4 million people in 2016, a 31 percent increase since 2006.

But fewer people are dying from infectious diseases, due to better treatments such as antibiotics and antiviral drugs, and vaccines.

“Exceptions included dengue which saw a significant increase, causing 37,800 deaths in 2016 (an 81.8 percent increase since 2006), and extensively drug resistant (XDR) tuberculosis which caused 10,900 deaths in 2016,” the team wrote. That’s a 68 percent increase since 2016 for XDR TB, which is very hard to treat and sometimes impossible to cure.

Dengue, a mosquito-borne virus, may be more common because of climate change, the researchers said. There's no vaccine against it, although one's in the works, and no specific treatment.

However, deaths from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS are down more than 45 percent since 2006, the team found and malaria deaths are down by 25 percent.

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“While significant progress has been made since 2006, 1.03 million people died from HIV, 719,500 died from malaria, and 1.21 million died from tuberculosis (20.9 percent decrease) in 2016,” they wrote.

And war is taking a toll.

“Since 2006, the number of deaths from conflict and terrorism has risen significantly, reaching 150,500 in 2016, largely as a result of conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East,” they wrote. That’s a 143 percent increase over the past 10 years.

And here’s a number that helps illustrate population growth. In 2016, 128.8 million babies were born and 54.7 million people died.