Chronic diseases and health promotion

Part Two. The urgent need for action

Chapter One. Chronic diseases: causes and health impact


Chronic diseases: causes and health impacts

The disease profile of the world is changing at an astonishingly fast rate, especially in low and middle income countries. Long-held notions about the nature of chronic diseases, their occurrence, the risk factors underlying them and the populations at risk are no longer valid.

The great epidemics of tomorrow are unlikely to resemble those that have previously swept the world, thanks to progress in infectious disease control. The risk of outbreaks – a new influenza pandemic, for example – will require constant vigilance. But it is the looming epidemics of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other chronic diseases that for the foreseeable future will take the greatest toll in deaths and disability. It is vitally important that the impending chronic disease pandemic is recognized, understood and acted on urgently.

  • Chronic diseases will take the lives of over 35 million people in 2005, including many young people and those in middle age.
  • The total number of people dying from chronic diseases is double that of all infectious diseases (including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria), maternal and perinatal conditions, and nutritional deficiencies combined.
  • 80% of chronic disease deaths occur in low and middle income countries and half are in women.
  • Without action to address the causes, deaths from chronic diseases will increase by 17% between 2005 and 2015.

What are chronic diseases?

The main chronic diseases discussed in this report are: cardiovascular diseases, mainly heart disease and stroke; cancer; chronic respiratory diseases; and diabetes. There are many other chronic conditions and diseases that contribute significantly to the burden of disease on individuals, families, societies and countries. Examples include mental disorders, vision and hearing impairment, oral diseases, bone and joint disorders, and genetic disorders. Some will be presented as case studies in this publication to highlight the wide variety of chronic diseases that require continuing attention from all sectors of society. Mental and neurological disorders are important chronic conditions that share a unique set of distinguishing features, and which were reviewed recently by the World Health Organization (The World Health Report 2001 – Mental health: new understanding, new hope. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2001).

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