China's increasing wealth is changing the way people die

The skyline of the financial district in Shanghai on May 8, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Chronic illnesses like stroke, heart problems and lung cancer became the top causes of premature death in China over the last three decades, according to a new study showing health trends that increasingly resemble the US and other advanced nations.

The study, published this week in the Lancet, showed those conditions replacing lung infections and neonatal disorders as the lead killers in China.

The analysis offers a bird's eye view of the new pressures facing Asia's largest economy. As China grapples with more complex and long-running diseases that are expensive to treat, the shift is increasingly likely to drive up its healthcare costs.

About 90 per cent of America's US$3.3 trillion (S$4.5 trillion) in annual healthcare expenditure is for people with chronic and mental health conditions, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Like many countries, China has reached a tipping point over the past three decades," said Maigeng Zhou, an official at an offshoot of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who helped lead the study.

"Going forward, the burden of chronic health problems, especially among the elderly, will far exceed infectious diseases."


China's health spending was 5 per cent of gross domestic product in 2016, compared with 17.1 per cent in the US, 11.5 per cent in France, and 9.8 per cent in the UK, according to the World Health Organisation.

High blood pressure, smoking, high salt intake and outdoor pollution were now big contributing factors to deaths in China, the study said.

The research showed substantial differences in health problems at the provincial level. People in urban, coastal and wealthier provinces in eastern China are healthier than those in rural and poorer areas in the west, the research showed.

Meanwhile, the national diabetes rate increased more than 50 per cent between 2000 and 2017 due to changing lifestyles, including increased consumption of red meat and decreased levels of physical activity.

China is pushing to reduce pressure on its public health system by attempting to reduce drug prices and encourage more investment in hospitals.

The nation has benefited from the declines in maternal and child mortality rates over nearly three decades that have accompanied economic growth, as well as its efforts to implement national programmes to tackle infectious diseases, according to the study.

Part of a project called the Global Burden of Disease conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, it studied data from 1990 to 2017.

In the US, heart diseases were the leading cause of death in 2016, followed by cancer, accidents, chronic lower respiratory diseases and stroke, according to the CDC.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and liver cancer were also the leading causes of death in China.

Compared to countries with similar levels of economic development, such as Russia, China has unusually high levels of stroke, COPD, lung cancer, liver cancer, neck pain and stomach cancer, the study said.

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