Chronic diseases are a worldwide problem

Noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases are the biggest worldwide killers, far surpassing what might once have been considered the more serious global health threats of malaria and tuberculosis.

About 63% of deaths worldwide are caused by noncommunicable diseases, according to a new report by the World Health Organization. Health officials there say modern lifestyle habits are largely to blame, specifically tobacco and alcohol use, physical inactivity and poor diet.

The trend didn't happen overnight. Health experts have been raising alarms for more than a decade that habits such as smoking, drinking and eating high-calorie junk food were health risks not just for the rich and sedentary.

As the WHO report points out:

"While popular belief presumes that NCDs afflict mostly high-income populations, the evidence tells a very different story. Nearly 80% of NCD deaths occur in low-and middle-income countries and are the most frequent causes of death in most countries, except in Africa."

In fact, low and middle-income countries account for more than 80% of deaths related to heart disease and diabetes — and almost 90% of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Two-thirds of cancer deaths occur in such nations.

The WHO report highlighted potential cost-effective strategies to turn the tide of chronic diseases:

—Raise taxes on tobacco and alcohol

—Ban smoking in public places

—Reduce salt content in food

—Replace trans-fat with polyunsaturated fat in foods

The strategies sound simple, yet chronic diseases continue to rise. A similar report by the WHO 14 years ago laments the same trend:

“Many people are suffering and dying prematurely from chronic diseases. This trend is strongly linked to lifestyles which have undergone radical changes in recent years — from physical, outdoor labor to sedentary work, from rural life to urban existence, from traditional diet to unhealthy foods, from negligible consumption of alcohol and/or tobacco to daily or heavy consumption of one or both.”

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