In contrast, AIDS and alcohol are the biggest health threats among Russians, malnutrition threatens children in Africa and Afghanistan and violence is taking the lives of many young men across much of Latin America.
The team at the University of Washington in Seattle looked at thousands of sources of data, from individual death certificates to global surveys on illness, for their report. It compares various causes of death and diseases across 187 countries.
Groups like the Alzheimer’s Association have been warning that the U.S. will have to cope with a tsunami of Alzheimer’s disease as the population ages. A report last month projected that the number of patients with this untreatable form of dementia will triple in the next 40 years, to 13.8 million in 2050.
The University of Washington team looked at Alzheimer's trends and found it’s already up 392 percent as a cause of premature death, as measured by years of life lost. As an overall cause of death – how many people die of Alzheimer's instead of something else – it’s up more than 500 percent.
As for causes of disease, they are mostly self-imposed.
“Overall, the three risk factors that account for the most disease burden in the United States are dietary risks, tobacco smoking, and high body-mass index,” reads the report, called the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors 2010.
Heart disease, lung and throat cancer and stroke cost Americans the most years of life in 2010, the study, led by the university’s Christopher Murray, found. The single biggest risk factor in the U.S. is diet.
But there’s good news. “Of the 25 most important causes of burden, as measured by disability-adjusted life years, interpersonal violence showed the largest decrease, falling by 26 percent from 1990 to 2010,” the report finds
There’s other good news in the report: AIDS infections appear to have peaked globally and people are living longer and healthier lives.
“While HIV/AIDS has exacted a devastating toll on many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing by 328 percent in terms of healthy years lost from 1990 to 2010, the epidemic appears to have peaked in 2004,” the report says.
Death rates from HIV are now falling, according to the World Health Organization. Programs to get people treated with cocktails of lifesaving drugs, which can also prevent new infections, are the reason. “This success is largely attributable to the massive scale-up in antiretroviral therapy over the past decade,” the report reads.
Other rich countries have similar health profiles to the United States. Residents of Britain and Canada both also suffer most from overeating and smoking. In Britain, the single biggest helath risk to children is second-hand smoke.
In contrast, the three biggest causes of poor health in Ecuador are alcohol abuse, poor diet and high blood pressure. Children are the most hurt by poor breastfeeding.
In Afghanistan, most disease is caused by air pollution from household fireplaces and cookstoves, underweight children and poor diet.
“A troubling mortality trend is among young adults, especially young men, who are now dying at very high rates in eastern Europe, central Asia, and eastern and southern Africa. This is largely due to the epidemics of alcohol‐related mortality and HIV/AIDS, respectively,” the report says.
“The average mortality rates among males aged 25 to 39 fell by little more than 19.7 percent over the four decades as compared to much higher declines in other age‐groups.”