Background: Estimates of the disease burden due to multiple risk factors can show the potential gain from combined preventive measures. But few such investigations have been attempted, and none on a global scale. Our aim was to estimate the potential health benefits from removal of multiple major risk factors.
Methods: We assessed the burden of disease and injury attributable to the joint effects of 20 selected leading risk factors in 14 epidemiological subregions of the world. We estimated population attributable fractions, defined as the proportional reduction in disease or mortality that would occur if exposure to a risk factor were reduced to an alternative level, from data for risk factor prevalence and hazard size. For every disease, we estimated joint population attributable fractions, for multiple risk factors, by age and sex, from the direct contributions of individual risk factors. To obtain the direct hazards, we reviewed publications and re-analysed cohort data to account for that part of hazard that is mediated through other risks.
Results: Globally, an estimated 47% of premature deaths and 39% of total disease burden in 2000 resulted from the joint effects of the risk factors considered. These risks caused a substantial proportion of important diseases, including diarrhoea (92%-94%), lower respiratory infections (55-62%), lung cancer (72%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (60%), ischaemic heart disease (83-89%), and stroke (70-76%). Removal of these risks would have increased global healthy life expectancy by 9.3 years (17%) ranging from 4.4 years (6%) in the developed countries of the western Pacific to 16.1 years (43%) in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Interpretation: Removal of major risk factors would not only increase healthy life expectancy in every region, but also reduce some of the differences between regions. The potential for disease prevention and health gain from tackling major known risks simultaneously would be substantial.