Picture a world in which making it to old age was guaranteed. That future may not be far off, according to three population and public health scientists who published their vision for a future of healthier, longer lives in Science on Thursday.
“Death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not,” write Richard Peto, Alan D. Lopez and Ole F. Norheim of the University of Oxford, University of Melbourne and University of Bergen, respectively. Around the world, premature mortality has dropped tremendously since 1970, and the authors believe the trend is likely to continue.
The below chart, which the writers include with their article, illustrates the optimistic pattern.
It shows the risk of dying at any given age, with the lighter-coloured line representing the risk in 1970 and the darker line representing the risk in 2010. In 1970, people had a 28% chance of dying before they turned 50. By 2010, that risk had been cut in half. For children under five, the news is even better: mortality dropped from 14% in 1970 all the way down to 5% in 2010.
Worldwide, premature death is caused by a variety of factors, such as insufficient maternal and infant healthcare, injuries and communicable diseases. But non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like cancer and heart disease, are leading causes of premature death in the developed world and an increasing concern in developing countries.
NCDs currently cause a quarter of all deaths before age 50 and a whopping 80% of deaths in people aged 50-69. The World Health Organisation reports that NCDs are expected to kill 52 million people across all age groups in 2030.
Last year, the World Health Organisation released a Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs, which includes plans to help people cut down on their alcohol and tobacco use, physical inactivity and salt intake — all factors that can lead to NCDs — while increasing access to medicines and treatments. Those efforts, the Science authors argue, could help cut under-50 deaths in half by 2030, reducing mortality at more than twice the rate it dropped between 1970 and 2010 and saving 10 million lives in the process.
No one gets to live forever, but with the right approach we may all get to live a little longer than previous generations.
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