The world's biggest risks

The world's 10 leading causes of death

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When illness strikes it can be a costly business. According to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, global spending on medicines in 2014 will reach $1 trillion, while health insurance for an average American family in 2013 cost $16,000, according to research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust.

Across the Atlantic, net expenditure for the U.K.'s publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) was £105 billion ($171 billion) in the tax year 2012/13, while per capita spending was £1,979 in 2010/11. Per capita spending in the United States was $8,608 in 2011.

For most people living in the developed world, medicine and healthcare is relatively accessible. Yet for those living in the developing world, even access to basic sanitation and clean drinking water is a daily struggle.

Here, we take a look at the 10 leading causes of death in the world according to 2011 data – the most recent available – from the World Health Organisation (WHO), and assess the impact they have on both individuals and their countries' economies.

By Anmar Frangoul, Special to

10: Prematurity

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Global deaths: 1.2 million
Cost to United States: approx. $26 billion per year

According to the WHO, 15 million babies are born premature, or "before 37 weeks of completed gestation", every year.

Over one million babies die because of preterm birth complications, making it the number one cause of new-born deaths.

The estimated cost of preterm birth in the U.S. – where one in every eight baby is born premature – was $26 billion in 2005, while in the U.K. it's almost £3 billion.

Recent studies on preterm babies have shown that in low-income countries, babies born prematurely are 10 times more likely to die than babies born in wealthy, high-income countries.

9: Road injury

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Global deaths: 1.3 million
Cost to United States: $70 billion

Today, there are over one billion cars on our roads across the world. Almost 3,400 people are killed daily as a result of road traffic accidents, with millions more injured or permanently disabled annually, according to the WHO.

In 2012, there were 34,080 road deaths in the U.S, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

However, the WHO reports that 91 percent of road deaths take place in low and middle-income countries. In Africa alone, 700 people are killed as a result of road accidents every single day.

Data on the cost of road injuries and crashes is scarce, but a study in 2000 estimated that the global annual cost was $518 billion each year. According to a 2005 study, the cost of road injuries and deaths were $70 billion in the U.S.

The WHO predicts that if no progress is made in tackling the causes of road deaths, the global annual death toll will reach 1.9 million by 2020.

8: Diabetes mellitus

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Global deaths: 1.4 million
Cost to United States: approx. $245 billion per year

There are two kinds of diabetes – type one and type two. People with diabetes are unable to convert glucose into energy, which can be down to the body not producing enough insulin, or the body's insulin not working properly.

The American Diabetes Association estimates that the total cost of diabetes to the U.S. is $245 billion per year – $176 billion in medical costs alone. Diabetes contributes to over 230,000 American deaths annually.

In the U.K., it costs an estimated £9.8 billion a year to care for patients with diabetes, according to research by the York Health Economic Consortium. This figure is predicted to rise to £16.9 billion per year by 2035/6.

7: Respiratory cancers

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Global deaths: 1.5 million
Cost to United States: lung cancer, approx. $10.3 billion per year

According to a 2010 joint study by the American Cancer Society and the Livestrong Foundation, tracheal, bronchial and lung cancers cost the global economy $180 billion every year.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., where it costs $12.1 billion to treat, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013, 159,480 people died of lung cancer in the United States.


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Global deaths: 1.6 million
Cost to United States: approx. $29.7 billion (combined domestic and global spending) in 2014

1.6 million deaths globally per year are caused by HIV and AIDS – conditions that cause progressive failure of the immune system if untreated.

According to the United Nations, over 30 million people were living with HIV in 2012, although progress is being made in both prevention and treatment around the world.

The UN has reported that the number of adult and adolescent HIV infections across 26 countries has fallen by over 50 percent between 2001 and 2012, with the number of children infected with HIV falling by 52 percent globally in the same period.

The cost of the preferred antiretroviral therapy is also falling, according to the UN. It has dropped to as low as $140 per person per year today, from about $10,000 per person per year in the mid-1990s.

It's currently estimated that $22–$24 billion will be needed for the global response to HIV in 2015.

5: Diarrhoeal diseases

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Global deaths: 1.9 million
Cost to United States: $365 million allocated to improve global sanitation and access to safe drinking water in 2014

Despite being preventable and treatable, diarrhoeal diseases are the second largest killers of children under five globally, with around 760,000 dying every year, according to the WHO.

There are almost 1.7 billion cases of diarrhoeal disease annually, mostly caused by poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water.

According to the World Bank, the lack of access to sanitation costs the global economy $260 billion annually, or more than Chile's entire GDP. It costs the Indian economy $54 billion a year alone.

4: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

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Global deaths: 3 million
Cost to United States: approx. $50 billion per year

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to chronic diseases of the lung such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.

Symptoms of these illnesses include breathlessness, persistent coughing and chest infections. The primary cause of COPD is smoking, which damages the lungs, inflaming and irritating them.

In 2010 it was estimated that the direct healthcare cost of COPD in the U.S. was $30 billion, with indirect costs coming in at around $20 billion.

According to the European Respiratory Society, lung conditions including COPD are responsible for one-in-10 deaths in Europe.

3: Lower respiratory infection

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Global deaths: 3.2 million
Cost to United States: pneumonia and influenza, approx. $40.2 billion in 2005

Lower respiratory infections, also known as lower respiratory tract infections (LRTIs), include flu, pneumonia and tuberculosis (TB).

Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, hospitalized 1.1 million people in 2010 in the U.S. and killed approximately 50,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the WHO, over 95 percent of deaths from TB happen in low- and middle- income countries. Worldwide, 530,000 children fell ill with TB in 2012.

2: Stroke

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Global deaths: 6.2 million
Cost to United States: approx. $43 billion per year

The National Stroke Association estimates that strokes – which occur when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off - cost the U.S. $43 billion each year.

In the U.S., more than 130,000 people die from strokes each year, and strokes are the largest cause of adult disability in the U.K., according to the country's NHS.

The first signs of a stroke are drooping on one side of the face, being unable to lift your arms and slurred speech or an inability to speak.

The risk of having a stroke is increased by poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, age and obesity.

1: Ischaemic heart disease

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Global deaths: 7 million
Cost to United States: approx. $108.9 billion per year

Also known as coronary heart disease, ischaemic heart disease killed 7 million people worldwide in 2011 according to the WHO.

Contributory factors to heart disease include a poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight, high alcohol intake and smoking.

According to the British Heart Foundation, the UK spends nearly £2 billion per year treating coronary heart disease.

In comparison the disease costs the U.S. $108.9 billion each year in healthcare costs, and indirect economic costs such as absence from work.

In Latin America it's been forecast that between 1990 and 2020, incidences of coronary heart disease – and strokes – will increase by 145 percent, placing even greater strain on already-stretched health services.