The staggering toll of noncommunicable diseases

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Chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, are the leading cause of death worldwide, with the burden falling heaviest in low- and middle-income countries. A new article by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers outlines the global burden of chronic, or noncommunicable, diseases and proposes ways in which national leaders and heads of international organizations can develop systems to cope with these long-term conditions that the authors call the “dominant global public health challenge of the 21st century.”

The article was published October 3, 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine as part of a series on global health edited by co-author David Hunter, Vincent L. Gregory Professor in Cancer Prevention and Dean for Academic Affairs at HSPH, and Harvey Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine and former dean of HSPH.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, noncommunicable diseases contributed to 36 million deaths globally in 2008, accounting for 63% of 57 million total deaths. The Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010 estimated that mortality due to noncommunicable diseases increased from 57% of total deaths in 1990 to 65% in 2010. About 80% of deaths related to noncommunicable diseases occur in low- and middle-income countries.