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Even With COVID-19, Heart Disease Is The World's Most Deadly Killer

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A new report from the World Health Organization finds that heart disease still remains the leading cause of death globally. The report analyzes data since the turn of the millennium and finds that noncommunicable diseases like Alzheimer's are killing more people while deaths from infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis have reduced. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Over the last two decades, the human life span got extended by six years. Globally, the average person now lives to 73. Everyone still dies, but the causes of death are shifting. And how we die depends heavily on where we were born and where we live.

SAMIRA ASMA: There has been a significant rise in road traffic injuries in African region since 2000.

BEAUBIEN: Samira Asma, who heads up the WHO's data division, says the number of deaths from car crashes in Africa jumped 50% over the last 20 years. In the Americas, including the U.S., people are dying more frequently from suicide and drug overdoses.

ASMA: There was a nearly threefold increase in deaths from drug-use disorders in Americas between 2000 and 2019.

BEAUBIEN: In Southeast Asia and Africa, hundreds of thousands of children continue to die each year from respiratory infections, diarrhea and complications at birth. In the WHO's European and American regions, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia have surged and are now the third leading cause of death in both places. Globally, heart disease and stroke were the two leading killers 20 years ago, and they remain the top two today. But tuberculosis and HIV, which were ranked at No. 7 and 8 worldwide two decades ago, have dropped out of the top 10 causes of death. Last year, the number of people dying from AIDS was half of what it was in the year 2000.

This report from the WHO only includes data through the end of 2019, before COVID-19 was even identified. So far this year, COVID has killed more than 1.5 million people. Forecasters predict that by the end of this year, the pandemic's death toll could rise to 1.9 million. If that happens, COVID-19 would rank as the sixth most deadly disease in the world.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK BEMAN'S "TIME CAPSULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.