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Chris Mihill

The world is facing a huge increase in suffering and disability from cancer, heart disease and other lifestyle illnesses in the next 25 years, the World Health Organisation has warned.

There will be a 33 percent rise in lung cancers in women and a 40 percent rise in prostate cancers in men in European Union countries alone by 2005, the WHO predicts.

Cancers are likely to double in most countries, with smoking, poor diet and an ageing population fuelling the rise.

Warning of "lifestyle plagues", the WHO's 1997 annual report states: "Dramatic increases in life expectancy, combined with profound changes in lifestyle, will lead to global epidemics of cancer and other chronic disease in the next two decades. The main result will be a huge increase in human suffering and disability. There is an urgent need to find ways to reduce that coming burden."

While infectious diseases are well under control in the industrialised world, societies face a growing toll from cancer, heart disease and strokes, mental disorders including dementia, chronic lung conditions and musculoskeletal problems such as arthritis.

But developing countries face the "double burden" of having to fight infectious diseases while being increasingly afflicted with the lifestyle illnesses seen in the more affluent countries.

The report warns that heart disease and strokes, already leading causes of death in richer nations, will become far more common in poorer ones. Globally, cases of diabetes will more than double by 2025, and there will be a huge rise in some mental disorders, especially dementias.

The WHO calls for an "intensified and sustained" global campaign to encourage healthy lifestyles and attack the risk factors of many diseases: unhealthy diet, inadequate physical activity, smoking and obesity.

The report shows that circulatory diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes, kill 15.3 million people a year at present. Cancer in all its forms kills 6.3 million. Lung diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis, kill 2.9 million. These add up to 24.5 million deaths, or 47 percent of the annual global total of deaths from all causes.

Tobacco-related deaths, primarily from lung cancer and circulatory disease, amount to 3 million a year, or 6 percent of total deaths, with smoking accounting for one in seven cancer cases worldwide. "If the trend of increasing consumption in many countries continues, the epidemic has many decades to run and will surely be judged by future generations to have been one of the greatest health tragedies in the history of mankind," the report states.

It says that in 2020, at least 15 million people worldwide will develop cancer, compared with 10 million cases annually now. In developing countries cases will also double, and in industrialised nations they will increase by 40 percent.

The number of diabetes sufferers worldwide is expected to rise from 135 million worldwide in 1995 to 300 million in 2025.

Today there are about 380 million people aged 65 or more, the report says. By 2020 the number is expected to exceed 690 million. Without good quality of life, extra years could turn into a penalty rather than a prize. Average global life expectancy is now 65 and in some countries is approaching 80.

Source: The Guardian, 11 May 1997.

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