Science & Tech

Scientists confirm the new number one cause of disease around the world

Scientists confirm the new number one cause of disease around the world
Man climbs Wales's highest mountain to raise awareness for his neurological condition

Scientists have confirmed that the new number one cause of disease around the world involves the nervous system.

Thanks to events like the Covid-19 pandemic and the re-emergence of ancient diseases, it can seem like there is no end to the harm humans might face.

But, a major US study has confirmed that the conditions which affect the nervous system, like strokes, migraines and dementia, are the leading cause of ill health. It surpassed heart disease for the first time after strokes were reclassified by the World Health Organisation from cardiovascular to neurological.

The analysis was conducted by hundreds of researchers, who were led by the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Their results were published in The Lancet journal last week.

Their results found that in 2021, over 3.4 billion people experienced a neurological condition – 43 per cent of the world’s population. Experts were stunned by the results, which far exceeded the numbers they previously thought.

Neurological conditions have increased by 59 per cent over the last three decades. The rise may be attributed to our ageing and growing populations.

According to lead study author Jaimie Steinmetz of the IHME, the results show that nervous system conditions are currently “the world's leading cause of overall disease burden”.


Between 1990 and 2021, the researchers analysed how 37 different neurological conditions had an impact on ill health, disability and premature death across 204 countries and territories.

Using the data, it was calculated how many years of healthy life are lost to different conditions, with experts naming this number the disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

Around the world in 2021, over 443 million DALYs were lost to disorders of the nervous system. The figure is up by 18 per cent from 1990. However, when the figure was adjusted for age and population size, DALYs and deaths fell by a third.

Stroke emerged as the worst neurological condition as it counted for 160 million years of healthy life lost.

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