95 Percent of People Have Some Illness or Injury

A total of 95 percent of all people worldwide had some illness or injury during 2013, according to a study in The Lancet. Wolfgang Rattay / REUTERS

If somebody says they never get sick, they are probably lying. New research shows that the vast majority of people report at least one illness or significant health complaint each year. And many wrestle with multiple problems simultaneously.

A large study published in The Lancet on June 8 compiling health data from all over the world found that 95 percent of all people on Earth, young and old, reported having some illness or injury during 2013, the latest year for which data is available.

Moreover, nearly one-third of adults in developed countries reported having five or more significant health problems in 2013. The analogous figure in sub-Saharan is much worse, at 62 percent.

The study found that amount of time people spend feeling very ill or in poor health, quantified in a metric known as "years lived with disability" (YLD), has gone up 42 percent since 1990.

This is mainly because people are getting older, says Rifat Atun, a global health researcher at Harvard University who wasn't involved in the study, but who wrote a commentary accompanying it in The Lancet. One-quarter of those over 80 reported 10 or more significant health complaints in 2013, and nearly two-thirds had between five and nine.

The study points out "how much sickness and poor health" there is out there—"It's a real wake-up call," Atun says.

Leading causes of disability worldwide. The Lancet

The leading causes of "years lost to disability" paint a "painful picture," Atun says. Low back pain brings about the most agony (and YLD) with neck pain fourth, migraine sixth, and other musculoskeletal disorders coming in tenth. Mental disorders come next: depression causes the second most disability, followed by anxiety in ninth place and schizophrenia in eleventh. The only communicable, or contagious illness in the top 25 causes of disability is diarrheal disease, placing last.

As for why low back pain and the like as such problems, Atun says it has to do largely with lifestyle and lack of activity. "Our bodies are not designed to sit in front of a laptop, which both of us are probably doing now," he says.

Study co-author Theo Vos, a professor of global health at the University of Washington, says that though the numbers are indeed staggering, they don't mean that everybody is constantly sick. The scientists calculated YLD by "quantifying the amount of health lost due to all these conditions, by giving them a severity weight. Minor things get a very low weight and severe illnesses get a high weight. Thus, 1 million people with mild hearing loss will count for less than 10,000 YLDs, while 1 million people with schizophrenia or quadriplegia will count for over 500,000 YLDs."

For example, if somebody reported having a toothache for two days, that would count as a health concern or sequelae, defined as a symptom or effect of illness or injury. So that person would be counted as having one health concern during the year, even though it only lasted for two days. But health problems like depression or schizophrenia obviously last longer and cause more disability, thus the weighting factor.

Atun argues that things could nevertheless be better. We as a society have put "undue emphasis on rewarding the treatment of specific diseases, rather than rewarding the maintenance of good health."

This pursuit of cures for diseases like polio or smallpox has allowed us to live much longer, but now we need to change tack. "We need to complete rethink the health services we provide," he says. He advocates for more holistic medicine, well-trained primary care and family physicians and nurses.