When we think of the “deadliest diseases”, we might be inclined to imagine the ones with visually severe symptoms that grab the headlines for their rapid spread and lives lost.
On the contrary, many of the diseases that have those characteristics don’t kill as many people as we believe, not even ranking among the top 10 causes of deaths worldwide.
It turns out that the deadliest diseases are those with a slow progression.
Of the 56.4 million deaths in 2015,68% was due to long-term chronic conditions.
Unlike the diseases with a rapid spread and disastrous consequences, the deadly diseases that progress slowly can be monitored and controlled.
With the right diagnosis, preventive care and advice from healthcare providers, patients can take steps to lower their risk of fatal consequences.
Here are the top five diseases that kill the most people worldwide every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO):
The deadliest disease for modern humans currently is coronary artery disease, also known as ischaemic heart disease.
When a person’s blood vessels narrow due to damage, they are at serious risk of heart disease.
Symptoms include arrhythmias, chest pain and heart failure.
You are at risk for heart disease if you have one or more of the following factors:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
- Family history of coronary artery disease
- Being overweight
Fortunately, due to improved science, medical care and education, death rates due to coronary artery diseases have declined, even though it remains the number one killer.
Coronary artery disease can be avoided by maintaining a lifestyle that encourages good heart health.
To decrease your risk, follow these tips:
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a balanced diet low in sodium, and high in fruits and vegetables
- Avoid smoking
- Drink alcohol in moderation
A stroke can happen when an artery in the brain gets blocked or leaks.
Your brain will then be deprived of oxygen and cells will begin to die within minutes.
Symptoms of a stroke include numbness in parts of your body, trouble walking or seeing, and confusion.
It’s possible to recover from a stroke, but if left untreated, it can cause long-term disability.
Getting treatment within three hours of experiencing a stroke lessens the likelihood of long-term disabilities.
But according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while 93% of people know that sudden onset of numbness is a sign of a stroke, only 38% are familiar with the other stroke symptoms.
Hence, stroke remains the leading cause of long-term disabilities.
Risk factors for stroke include:
- High blood pressure
- Family history of stroke
- Smoking, especially when combined with oral contraceptives
- Brain aneurysms or arteriovenous malformations
- Age and gender
Some risk factors of stroke can be reduced with preventative care, medications and lifestyle changes.
In general, good health habits can lower your risk. These include:
- Controlling high blood pressure
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a healthy diet low in sodium
- Avoiding smoking
- Drinking alcohol in moderation
The flu, bronchitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia are sources of infections in your lungs.
Viruses and bad bacteria enter your airways, causing key symptoms like coughing, breathlessness or tightness in your chest, and wheezing.
If left untreated, lower respiratory infections can lead to death.
To guard against respiratory infections, it’s advisable to update your flu shot annually.
Avoid spreading or picking up bad bacteria by washing your hands frequently, especially before eating and touching your face.
If you catch an infection, stay at home as much as possible to allow yourself a chance to rest and clear the infection more quickly, as well as to avoid infecting others.
This condition makes breathing difficult in the long term.
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are some of the most common types of progressive COPD.
An estimated 64 million people were recorded as living with pulmonary diseases in 2004.
Risk factors for COPD include:
- Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
- Exposure to lung irritants like chemical fumes
- A history of respiratory infections as a child
- Family history of COPD
The progression of COPD can be delayed with medication, getting treatment quickly increases your chances of successful treatment.
You can also prevent COPD by quitting smoking, avoiding secondhand smoke and other lung irritants.
This disease includes cancers of the bronchus, trachea, lungs and larynx.
Factors that lead to developing this type of cancer include secondhand smoke, toxic particles, smoking, mould in the home and other environmental toxins.
A 2015 study reports that respiratory cancer accounts for about four million deaths annually, especially in developing countries.
Although those who smoke are the most at risk for developing this condition, it can happen to anyone.
Family history and regular exposure to environmental poisons also play a role.
The most obvious method of prevention is to stop smoking, or not starting.
Apart from that, there isn’t much that can be done to specifically arrest the development of this disease, except to minimise your exposure to a poisonous environment.
You can also use an air purifier in your home and office, and wear a mask when going outside in poor air quality conditions.
Early detection can save you from experiencing the very worst symptoms of respiratory cancer.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and a functional medicine practitioner. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.