Number of Diabetes Cases Has Nearly Quadrupled Since 1980: WHO

Cans of soda are displayed in a case at Kwik Stops Liquor in San Diego, California, February 13, 2014. A new report from the World Health Organization found that the number of people with diabetes in the world has quadrupled in 35 years. Sam Hodgson/Reuters

The number of people with diabetes has quadrupled in the past three decades, with 422 million adults now living with the disease, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

In its first report on diabetes, the WHO says the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are living with diabetes are mainly in developing countries. The organization puts the surge in diabetes cases down to lack of physical exercise and obesity, which are compounded by unhealthy diets.

Nearly nine percent of the world's population now has diabetes, compared to 108 million people (4.7 percent) in 1980. Diabetes prevalence has risen faster in low- and middle-income countries over the past decade than in high-income countries, although "prevalence is growing in all regions of the world," according to the report.

At 13.7 percent, the Eastern Mediterranean region, which encompasses the Middle East and some North African and Asian countries, has the highest regional prevalence of diabetes in the world. In 1980, diabetes prevalence in the region was just 5.9 percent. The Western Pacific region has the largest number of diabetes cases, with 131 million people afflicted in 2014.

"If we are to make any headway in halting the rise in diabetes, we need to rethink our daily lives: to eat healthily, be physically active, and avoid excessive weight gain," Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Even in the poorest settings, governments must ensure that people are able to make these healthy choices and that health systems are able to diagnose and treat people with diabetes."

In 2012, diabetes deaths numbered 1.5 million, while higher-than-optimal blood glucose led to an additional 2.2 million deaths. The report does not differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, but does say that the majority of people with the disease are affected by type 2, which is "largely the result of excess body weight" and insufficient physical activity. The health complications of diabetes include heart attack, blindness and stroke, while people with the disease are 10 to 20 times more likely to undergo lower limb amputation.

In the U.S., nine percent of adults have diabetes and 70 percent of people are overweight. More than one-third of American adults are obese, according to WHO. The economic impacts of diabetes include "substantial" costs to families, health systems and national economies "through direct medical cost and loss of work and wages," the report says.

"Many cases of diabetes can be prevented, and measures exist to detect and manage the condition, improving the odds that people with diabetes live long and healthy lives," Dr. Oleg Chestnov, the WHO's assistant director-general for noncommunicable diseases and mental health, said in a statement. "But change greatly depends on governments doing more, including by implementing global commitments to address diabetes and other NCDs."

The WHO report was published one day before World Health Day, which is being held on April 7.