People now live longer with global life expectancy increasing by over six years since 1990 but there's a catch to this seemingly good news: many live sicker lives for longer.

A new study that looked at major diseases and injuries in 188 countries covering the period between 1990 and 2013 has revealed that general health has improved globally.

The improvement could be attributed to significant improvements in the fight against infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS in the past 10 years as well as advances made in the fight against maternal, neonatal and nutritional illnesses.

The global life expectancy at birth for both men and women has increased by 6.2 years. Health life expectancy, or HALE, rose by 5.4 years.  

With healthy life expectancy not increasing as much, the study, which was published in The Lancet journal on Aug. 26, said that people live more years with disability and illness.

The analysis likewise identified heart disease, respiratory infections affecting the lungs and the airways, stroke, low back and neck pain and road injuries as the cause of the most health loss worldwide.

Study lead author Theo Vos, from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, said that while there was great progress in health worldwide, the challenge is to invest in identifying more effective ways that could prevent or treat the main causes of illnesses and disability.

"Global health is improving," Vos and colleagues wrote in their study. "Population growth and ageing have driven up numbers of DALYs, but crude rates have remained relatively constant, showing that progress in health does not mean fewer demands on health systems."

The researchers found that for most of the countries studied, the changes in healthy life expectancy were significant and positive. Cambodia and Nicaragua experienced dramatic rise in healthy life expectancy at 13.9 and 14.7 years respectively. Many countries including Belize, Syria and Botswana, however, did not see significant improvements in over two decades.  

Some countries including Paraguay, South Africa and Belarus saw a decline in healthy life expectancy. Individuals born in Lesotho and Swaziland in 2013 are expected to live about 10 fewer healthy years than those who were born two decades earlier.

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 likewise revealed that people in Lesotho have the lowest healthy life expectancy at 42 years while people in Japan have the highest at 73.4 years. 

Photo: Cinty Ionescu | Flickr

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