• Heart diseases and stroke are two of the biggest killers, according to WHO’s 2019 report on the most common causes of death worldwide.
  • There have been encouraging improvements, with deaths from HIV/Aids and tuberculosis in decline.
  • Alzheimer’s is still a growing problem and affects more women than men.
  • Meanwhile, COVID-19 may be disrupting immunization against diseases like measles, cholera and polio.

While the world is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, many other common causes of early death are in retreat – including HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.

In its latest report, "Leading causes of death and disability," the World Health Organization (WHO) has examined data from 2000-2019 to track trends in life-limiting and life-shortening illness and injury. The data does not, however, contain information relating to COVID-19, as it predates the pandemic. As such, this report gives us a snapshot of global health in the pre-pandemic world.

There are already concerns that diverting medical resources toward the current health crisis has led to a worsening situation with other illnesses and diseases.

Last year, UNICEF said it was worried about the confluence of COVID-19 cases and ongoing outbreaks of diseases like measles, cholera and polio. Several countries were already tackling these and other deadly diseases when the pandemic struck, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, the Philippines, Syria and South Sudan.

A graph to show the worlds leading causes of death
HIV is no longer a global top ten cause of death.
Image: Statista

Heart disease remains the number-one killer

The leading cause of death in the world in 2019 was ischaemic heart disease, also known as coronary heart disease, the WHO report found. It was responsible for 16% of total deaths and since 2000 has seen the largest increase in mortalities, killing 8.9 million people in 2019.

The top four causes of death in 2019 were the same for men and women:

  • Ischaemic heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Lower respiratory infections

In men, the fifth most common cause of death in 2019 were lung cancers and other trachea/bronchus-related ailments. For women, it was Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“These neurological disorders kill more females than males, with about 80% more deaths and 70% more DALYs for women than for men,” the report states.

DALYs are disability-adjusted life years, a measure that “combines years of life lost due to premature mortality (YLLs) and years of life lost due to time lived in states of less than full health, or years of healthy life lost due to disability (YLDs)”.

The life-expectancy gap

In the period 2000-2019, average global life expectancy rose by more than six years – from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.4 in 2019. But there is a gap between overall life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, according to the report.

That measure has increased by 8%, from 58.3 years in 2000 to 63.7 in 2019. This indicates there is a point at which health, and possibly quality of life, start to diminish – currently lasting almost 10 years.

Diabetes was found to have the largest impact on DALYs, the WHO says, increasing by 80% between 2000 and 2019. While DALYs caused by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have almost doubled.

Optimistic signs

One significant downward trend has been the effect of HIV on DALYs, which dropped by 50%. HIV/Aids has disappeared from the top 10 causes of death, globally – going from 8th place in 2000 to 19th last year.

Another notable difference in HIV/Aids over the period has been the gender split of those it has killed. Since 2000, there has been a 55% decline in deaths among women. In 2000, there were 38,000 fewer women who died from HIV/Aids than men. By 2019, that difference had grown to 90,000.

There has also been progress with tuberculosis (TB), which dropped from seventh place in 2000 to 13th in 2019. Globally, deaths from TB have reduced by 30%. But it is still a problem in many poorer parts of the world, and is in the top 10 causes of death in Africa and South-East Asia.