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Burden Calculated for Preventable Causes of Death

Preventable risk factors like smoking, high blood pressure and obesity still claim hundreds of thousands of lives every year in the United States. One in five or six deaths among American adults is due to tobacco use and high blood pressure, according to a study by Majid Ezzati, HSPH associate professor of international health, and his colleagues, published online April 28 in PLoS Medicine. Obesity, physical inactivity and high blood sugar each kill more than 190,000 people every year and account for one in 10 deaths.

The study was the first to calculate the death burden of unhealthy dietary habits like high salt intake, which kills 102,000 adults a year, high trans fatty acids (82,000 deaths) and low consumption of omega-3 fatty acids from seafood (84,000 deaths). The beneficial effects of moderate alcohol drinking averted around 26,000 deaths per year from heart problems and diabetes, but alcohol also killed 90,000 by boosting other cardiovascular diseases, cancer, alcoholism, drunken driving and violence.

The researchers estimated the deaths associated with 12 lifestyle, dietary and metabolic risk factors across age and sex using nationwide surveys and the most recent evidence from epidemiological studies. Other studies have tracked the impact of individual health risks, but this is the most comprehensive study to date that uses comparable methods, the researchers said.

According to the authors, the work shows that targeting a handful of risk factors including smoking, high blood pressure and dietary habits could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives annually in the United States.

Students may contact Majid Ezzati at majid_ezzati@harvard.edu for more information.

Conflict Disclosure: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Funding Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through the Association of Schools of Public Health; the content of the work is the responsibility solely of the authors.