Over the past few months new data on the global burden of disease and associated risks has been published. The main messages are that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) accounted for 63.5% of the 53 million deaths worldwide in 2010 and that heart disease and stroke together accounted for almost 10 million deaths. The authors document a rapid shift in the underlying causes of death since 1990, especially evident in low- and middle-income countries.

Steep declines in many infectious diseases and problems of under-nutrition in children represent a victory for public health and development efforts. Increases in the underlying risks for NCDs, specifically the high use of tobacco, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, represent a continued failure of governments, industry and civil society to focus on preventable risks. Public funding for NCDs remains paltry compared to the massive preventive potential it could bring over decades for health and financial savings.

World Health Day highlights the importance of hypertension as a global concern. High blood pressure accounts for 7% of the global burden of disease and 53% of the burden caused by heart disease. Less salt, more fruit and vegetables, fewer overall calories and more activity are all effective means to prevent hypertension in populations. And when combined with regular screening, this all contributes to lower overall mortality rates and improved quality of lives.

These facts have been known for decades but very little has been done until recently. However, that is changing. In the past few months, two major reports by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and UBS spotlighted companies that are starting to address salt and other aspects of diet that need to change to benefit health. These reports represent positive reinforcement for companies committed to change and help investors and consumers alike to make a healthy choice in terms of companies and products.

Exciting new initiatives aimed at stimulating dietary changes by providing sizeable cash-backs on healthy foods have yielded results. A healthy food programme run by the South African insurer Discovery’s Vitality programme showed that a 10%-25% discount on healthy foods at leading retailers across South Africa not only increased purchases of fruit and vegetables, but also reduced purchases of unhealthy foods, many of which have high salt levels. The study size (of 170 000 households) and follow-up time of 132 months make it the largest such initiative ever reported.

Let’s use World Health Day to draw on new insights about the power of “carrots”, starting with hypertension.

In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices will present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April. 

Author: Derek Yach is Senior Vice-President of Vitality Group, USA and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Well-Being and Mental Health

Image: A shopper buys carrots in Southern France REUTERS/Eric Gaillard