Neurological conditions primary cause of ill health, disability globally: Lancet study

Number of people affected by or dying from neurological conditions increased over past 3 decades; People in LMICs disproportionately affected

By Susan Chacko
Published: Friday 15 March 2024
Globally, 37 nervous system conditions were ranked as the leading group cause of disability-adjusted life-years in 2021, which affected 443 million people. Photo for representation: iStock

In 2021, 3.40 billion individuals or 43.1 per cent of the global population were living with a neurological condition and 11.1 million people lost their lives from a nervous system condition, showed a new study published in journal Lancet Neurology, March 14, 2024. 

Neurological disorders are now the leading cause of illness and disability worldwide. Globally, 37 nervous system conditions were ranked as the leading group cause of disability-adjusted life-years (DALY) in 2021, which affected 443 million people. 

Read more: Over 20 million deaths, 300 million life years lost due to COVID-19, estimates WHO

One DALY represents the loss of the equivalent of one year of full health, according to the World Health Organization.

The 10 conditions with the highest age-standardised DALYs in 2021 were stroke, neonatal encephalopathy, migraine, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, diabetic neuropathy, meningitis, epilepsy, neurological complications due to preterm birth, autism spectrum disorder and nervous system cancer.

Between 1990 and 2021, the number of DALYs due to neurological conditions rose by 18.2 per cent. However, age-standardised death rates per 100,000 people decreased by 33.6  per cent and DALY rates dropped by 27 per cent. The prevalence of these conditions remained nearly unchanged, with just a 1.5 per cent change during this period, the study found.

People in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) suffered more nervous system health problems, mainly because conditions affecting newborns and children under five were more common there, such as birth-related issues and infections. Although survival rates for newborns have risen, there’s also been an increase in long-term disabilities from neurological problems linked to these conditions, the study pointed out.

Read more: Diet, lifestyle, environmental changes linked to massive cancer cases spike in under-50 adults globally

Limited access to specialised treatment and rehabilitation services for nervous system conditions leads to poor health outcomes and higher mortality rates, the paper said. In LMICs, where these services are scarce, there’s a higher likelihood of death compared to high-income countries, likely due to the lack of quality care and specialists.

The research also found that nervous system conditions cause more DALYs in men but are more common in females, mainly due to migraine and tension-type headaches. The burden of these conditions typically rises with age, but specific patterns vary for different conditions. This highlighted the importance of customised interventions and prevention strategies for different age groups.

Nervous system health loss should be a public health priority as it is the leading cause of DALYs, affecting more than 40 per cent of the global population, the study stressed.

Read more: Global Burden of Diseases: Non-communicable diseases bigger burden than early deaths

Until recently, the nervous system was not a focal point of global public health debate. Quantifying the global burden of nervous system health loss aids policymaking and elevates brain health to the public health agenda. 

The adoption of the Intersectoral Global Action Plan on Epilepsy and Other Neurological Disorders 2022–2031 by the World Health Assembly brought prevention, early identification, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of disorders that affect the nervous system into focus.

The action plan is directed towards diminishing the stigma and lessening the impact and burden of neurological disorders, which includes reducing associated mortality, morbidity and disability. Additionally, it aims to enhance the quality of life for individuals with neurological disorders, as well as their caregivers and families.

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