July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Olive Bradshaw (June 4 2024)

The latest forecast from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Study 2021, published this week in the Lancet projects a nearly 5-year increase in global life expectancy between 2022 and 2050. 

Life expectancy in men is expected to increase by 4.9 years, while women can anticipate a 4.2-year rise. Regions with low life expectancy, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will see significant gains. 

Driven by improved public health measures and management of communicable diseases –the ones which can be passed from person to person–, this convergence indicates a significant reduction in global health inequalities over the next 25 years. 

Dr Stein Emil Vollset, professor of Health Metrics and team lead at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), said that we can expect that “people all over the world will live longer and that the progress is going to be strongest in the regions of the world that today have the poorest health and the shortest life expectancy”.

“In addition to an increase in life expectancy overall, we have found that the disparity in life expectancy across geographies will lessen”, says Dr Chris Murray, Chair of Health Metrics Sciences at the University of Washington and Director of the IHME. His statement signals a more equitable future in terms of health outcomes. “There will be sort of a catch-up from Sub-Saharan Africa and from South Asia”, Dr Vollset added.

The study also highlights a shift in the global health burden. As the prevalence of communicable, maternal and neonatal diseases is expected to decline, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes, will become the dominating source of disease. 

So, although people are living longer, many will spend more years in ill health managing chronic health conditions, posing a new set of challenges for global health systems.

The results of this study intend to “give policymakers, and also the public, what they need to make as well-informed decisions as they can about health and healthcare”, says Professor Vollset, adding that addressing issues such as smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and harmful alcohol use can significantly reduce the incidence of NCDs.

Public health experts advocate for a multifaceted, targeted approach to tackle these challenges. Strengthening healthcare infrastructure, ensuring access to essential medicines, and promoting healthy lifestyles are pivotal strategies. 

The researchers are calling for increased investment in healthcare research and development to innovate new treatments and preventive measures. 

“The results can be used both for global policies but also to tailor specific countries for what they need and what we see coming in the future”, says Professor Vollset.