Chronic diseases – The world’s most common cause of death

At the end of 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report on chronic diseases (also called non-communicable or lifestyle diseases). Their statistics show, among other things, that 74% of all world deaths are caused by chronic diseases, but their message is clear – the majority of these deaths are preventable.  

Unlike infections, for example, chronic diseases are not contagious, and are due to a combination of genetics, physiological factors, environment and lifestyle. The four main chronic disease types are cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes. Together they lead to about 41 million deaths per year, which corresponds to 74% of all deaths, according to the latest WHO report. Elderly people are at the greatest risk of being affected, but about 42% of the deaths are people under the age of 70, the majority of which are in low- or middle-income countries. [1] Several million people also live with at least one chronic disease over an extended period, which significantly impairs their quality of life.

However, the report highlights that the majority of disease cases could have been prevented through changes in the behaviours that constitute risk factors, i.e. unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, tobacco use and harmful consumption of alcohol. These behaviours in turn affect the biological risk factors such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, elevated cholesterol levels, being overweight, and obesity. Poor air quality is also listed in the report as a risk factor, but this is unfortunately more difficult for the individual to influence.

How is the current global situation?

17.9 million people die annually from cardiovascular diseases such as strokes or heart attacks, which means that this is the deadliest type of chronic disease. In contrast, 86% of the deaths are estimated to be preventable – solely by working preventatively on the risk factors and treatment. Cancer is the chronic disease that causes the second most deaths (9.3 million), followed by chronic respiratory diseases (4.1 million) and diabetes (2 million).  Even in these cases, a large proportion could be prevented.

WHO statistics also show that 1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men and 80% of young people are not physically active enough. [2] The incidence of people being overweight [3] has almost tripled since 1975, and today 39% of the world’s adult population is estimated to be overweight. In fact, in most countries obesity and being overweight cause more deaths than being underweight does. The WHO’s report also highlights the trend that Professor Stig Bengmark drew attention to in his book ‘Choose Health!’ (2018) – that obesity, which was previously a problem limited to high-income countries, is now also increasing in low- and middle-income countries.

Chronic diseases in Sweden

In Sweden, the situation regarding disease has changed a lot over the past 200 years. In the 19th century, infectious diseases were the primary threat to Swedish public health. Since then, there has been a shift, and today only chronic (non-communicable) diseases are classified as public diseases. According to the WHO, chronic diseases account for almost 90% of Swedish deaths. Of these, 32% are caused by cardiovascular disease, 25% by cancer, 6% by chronic lung disease and 3% by diabetes.

One positive trend when it comes to risk factors is that tobacco use in Sweden has decreased sharply. At the turn of the millennium, about 44% of the adult population were tobacco users, but in 2019 the corresponding figure was only 25%. Another positive trend is that the probability of premature death (<70 years) as a result of chronic diseases has decreased by 5 percentage points since the year 2000 in Sweden. More worrying, however, is that over half of the adult Swedish population is classified as being overweight, which means that Sweden is above the global average. The proportion has also increased every year.

Choose health

The WHO emphasises in its report that we can largely reduce the risk of chronic diseases by changing our lifestyle and diet, which corresponds well with Professor Stig Bengmark’s message – that you yourself can choose health! Our best advice to anyone reading this is to view the information from the report as something positive, as it confirms that you have every opportunity to take control of your well-being. A good starting point is to focus on the three pillars: plenty of exercise, stress control and healthy eating, which you can read more about in Stig’s articles.

You can also read Stig’s column on chronic diseases: Why choose to be sick when you have the right to be healthy?

NB! The death statistics are based on the years 2000–2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

[1] Based on statistics from the year 2000–2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

[2] Physical inactivity is defined as <150 min of medium-intensity or <75 min of high-intensity exercise per week for adults, and 60 min of medium-to-high-intensity exercise per day for young people.

[3] The WHO defines being overweight as having a BMI>25 kg/m^2



Folkhälsomyndigheten (u.å.). Folksjukdomar. Hämtad 1 december, 2022, från folkhalsomyndigheten

Invisible numbers: the true extent of noncommunicable diseases and what to do about them. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2022. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

Store norske leksikon (4 januari, 2019). Folkesykdommer. Snl

World Health Organization, (2022). Noncommunicable Diseases Data Portal. Hämtad December 1, 2022, från NCD-Portal


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