By: Toby Cosgrove, MD
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Humanity got a wonderful gift between 1990 and 2013 — six years of extra life. While the average person born in 1990 could expect to live to age 65.5, those born in 2013 can look forward to a 71st birthday. That’s an enormous leap. Many factors contributed to this immense gain for humanity, but the most salient is this: better healthcare.
These new data emerged from the Global Burden of Disease Study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and recently published in The Lancet. They show a dramatic fall in the rates of death from heart disease in the developed world.
Lowering death rates
Heart disease has been the focus of relentless medical and scientific effort over the past two decades. It’s good to see that our work is getting results. Other gains come from reduction of death rates from infectious disease, with deaths from measles, for instance, plummeting 83 percent.
What does all this tell us? Longer life represents a more-than-solid return on society’s investment in healthcare innovation, inoculation, sanitation and lifestyle modification. In this study, we see that medical education, biomedical research, and better access to healthcare services deliver a measurable benefit to humanity in its most precious currency: time.
For the past several years, our public life has been dominated by debates over healthcare issues. These are not empty debates. They reflect our awareness that modern medicine is central to our collective and individual well-being, and critical to our future as a species.
What should concern us
While the Global Disease Study delivers the good news about life expectancy, it also contains much that should concern us. Some parts of the world have seen average life spans actually shorten over the past two decades.
Life expectancy in southern sub-Saharan Africa fell five years, mainly owing to HIV-AIDS. Worldwide, death rates rose not only for HIV-AIDS, but pancreatic cancer, heart rhythm disorders, kidney disease, and sickle-cell anemias, among others.
It’s disappointing to see that the developed world continues to suffer a rise in conditions like diabetes, some cancers, heart ailments and pulmonary disease. These chronic diseases are caused largely by obesity and unhealthy lifestyles. They are generally preventable. Meanwhile, the rise of Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the aging brain continues without relent.
Among the promising angles viewable in the study is that fact that it is made possible by big data techniques that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. I believe that the incredible power of health information technology is only beginning to have an impact on world health. In years to come, the link between greater computing power and longer lives will be something we all take for granted.