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2003 Releases

Significant Global Health Gains Could Be Made by Reducing Well-known Risk Factors

For immediate release:  July 25, 2003

Boston, MA- Life expectancy could be significantly increased in the poorest areas of the world if well-known, major risk factors are highlighted and preventive measures put in place to help eliminate them. Those are the findings in a study by researchers from Harvard School of Public Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and a collaborating network of international scientists. The study appears in the July 26, 2003 issue of The Lancet.

The researchers estimated the potential health benefits of removing 20 known risk factors that contribute singularly or in combination to the main causes of death and disability globally in 14 regions around the world. Among the risk factors analyzed in the study were: malnutrition, unsafe sex, elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, alcohol and tobacco consumption, unsafe water and sanitation and indoor smoke from solid fuels. The regions were broken down into three categories: high mortality developing regions, lower mortality developing regions and economically developed regions.

Approximately 47 percent of deaths worldwide and approximately 40 percent of total disease burden in 2000 were a result of the main risk factors assessed in the study. Using comprehensive reviews of data on risk factor level and epidemiological studies in their estimates, the researchers found that if the main risk factors were eliminated in the 14 regions included in the study, the incidence of leading diseases would be greatly reduced: diarrhea by more than 90 percent, lower respiratory infections by approximately 60 percent, lung cancer by more than 70 percent, stroke by nearly 75 percent and ischaemic heart disease by nearly 90 percent.

The results were also reported in terms of gain in healthy life expectancy (HALE) which is a combined measure of premature mortality and non-fatal diseases. The elimination of the risk factors would also significantly increase global HALE overall by 9 years or more than 15 percent, from 56 to 65 years of age and ranging from 4.4 additional years in the developed countries of the western Pacific region to approximately 16 more years in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

 “This study shows that the potential health gains from reducing major known but often over-looked risks are enormous, especially for those societies that currently endure the worst health conditions,” said Majid Ezzati, an assistant professor in the Department of Population and International Health at Harvard School of Public Health. “The findings highlight the need for our public health system to put greater emphasis on disease prevention by recognizing clusters of risk factors and implementing policies and programs for addressing them, rather than merely treating their consequences.”

The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Director of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752