Chronic diseases and health promotion

Overview - Preventing chronic diseases: a vital investment

A vision for the future: reducing deaths, improving lives

Chronic diseases can be prevented and controlled

The rapid changes that threaten global health require a rapid response that must above all be forward-looking. The great epidemics of tomorrow are unlikely to resemble those that have previously swept the world, thanks to progress in infectious disease control. While the risk of outbreaks, such as a new influenza pandemic, will require constant vigilance, it is the "invisible" epidemics of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases that for the foreseeable future will take the greatest toll in deaths and disability. However, it is by no means a future without hope.

For another of today's realities, equally well supported by the evidence, is that the means to prevent and treat chronic diseases, and to avoid millions of premature deaths and an immense burden of disability, already exist.

In several countries, the application of existing knowledge has led to major improvements in the life expectancy and quality of life of middle-aged and older people. For example, heart disease death rates have fallen by up to 70% in the last three decades in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Middle income countries, such as Poland, have also been able to make substantial improvements in recent years.

Such gains have been realized largely as a result of the implementation of comprehensive and integrated approaches that encompass interventions directed at both the whole population and individuals, and that focus on the common underlying risk factors, cutting across specific diseases. The cumulative total of lives saved through these reductions is impressive. From 1970 to 2000, WHO has estimated that 14 million cardiovascular disease deaths were averted in the United States alone. The United Kingdom saved 3 million people during the same period.

The challenge is now for other countries to follow suit

Heart disease death rates among men aged 30 years or more, 1950-2002