In a startling new analysis, it has been revealed that conditions affecting the nervous system have surpassed heart disease to become the leading cause of ill health globally. This surge in neurological conditions, such as strokes, migraines, and dementia, has impacted more than 3.4 billion people worldwide in 2021. This number accounts for a staggering 43 percent of the global population, far exceeding previous estimates. The findings of this study, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, have shed light on the unprecedented scale of the issue.

Lead study author Jaimie Steinmetz emphasized that nervous system conditions have now become “the world’s leading cause of overall disease burden.” The prevalence of these conditions has risen by 59 percent over the last three decades, largely due to the aging and expanding global population. The researchers examined 37 different neurological conditions across 204 countries and territories from 1990 to 2021, assessing the impact on ill health, disability, and premature death. The measure used to quantify this impact, known as disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), revealed that over 443 million healthy years of life were lost to neurological disorders in 2021, marking an 18-percent increase from 1990.

Stroke emerged as the most devastating neurological condition, accounting for 160 million years of healthy life lost. This was followed by neonatal encephalopathy, migraine, dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), nerve damage from diabetes, meningitis, and epilepsy. Surprisingly, cognitive impairment from Covid-19 was ranked 20th on the list. The reclassification of stroke by the World Health Organization as a neurological condition played a significant role in elevating neurological conditions above cardiovascular disease in the rankings.

An alarming revelation from the study was the substantial impact of neurological conditions on children. Conditions such as neonatal encephalopathy, asphyxia, and meningitis can prove fatal in children under five, contributing significantly to the overall years of healthy life lost. Children accounted for nearly a fifth of all healthy years lost due to neurological disorders.

While cardiovascular disease remained the leading cause of death globally, the escalating burden of neurological conditions poses a significant challenge to health systems worldwide. It is imperative to take proactive measures to prevent, manage, and rehabilitate these conditions, particularly in low-income countries. The prevention of high blood pressure, diabetes, and excessive alcohol consumption can help mitigate the risk of developing these conditions. Urgent action is needed to address this growing epidemic of neurological disorders, as highlighted by study co-author Valery Feigin.

The findings of this analysis underscore the urgent need for greater awareness, resources, and intervention strategies to address the rising epidemic of neurological conditions worldwide. Failure to act decisively on this issue could have far-reaching implications for public health and healthcare systems globally.

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