Each year on 7 April, we observe World Health Day to mark the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization in 1948. This year's theme, "Good health adds life to years", conveys an important message: promoting good health throughout life improves one's chances of remaining healthy and productive in one's later years.
In the middle of the last century, there were just 14 million people in the world aged 80 years or older. By 2050, there will be almost 400 million people in this age group, 100 million of them in China alone. Soon, for the first time in history, the world will have more adults aged 65 or older than children under five. This enormous shift in the age of the world's population is closely linked to economic and social development. But more older people also means increased demands on health care and social security systems.
The greatest health threat for older people in all countries is now overwhelmingly from noncommunicable diseases. Heart disease and stroke are the biggest killers. But what is the biggest cause? This year’s World Health Day sounds the alarm of a silent global killer, high blood pressure.
One in three adults worldwide has this condition. It is a major cause to death in rich and poor countries alike. High blood pressure, a main trigger for heart disease, all too often goes undiagnosed because symptoms are rare. The good news is that when it is detected early enough, relatively simple steps can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks. That is why the United Nations encourages all adults to have their blood pressure regularly checked at health care facilities.
Following a healthy lifestyle can add years to all our lives. The evidence is unequivocal. Cutting down on the consumption of salt, eating a balanced diet, avoiding excessive drinking of alcohol, getting regular exercise, reducing stress and avoiding tobacco use minimize the risk of developing high blood pressure and further consequences such as strokes or heart attacks. Addressing high blood pressure is a key to tackling heart disease – one of the four most deadly non-communicable diseases.
The other three – cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes – are on the rise everywhere, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and increasingly among younger people. The countries that are hit hardest are those that can least afford the social and economic consequences of losing a significant part of their workforce to illness and premature death. These are the same countries that can least afford to pay for treatment and care.
I welcome the growing, global momentum to address non-communicable diseases. At the General Assembly in September 2011, countries committed to taking action. Since then, the World Health Organization has worked with partners to develop a global action plan to address non-communicable diseases in the years leading up to 2020. Reducing high blood pressure is a critical element in that action plan – and something we can all play a part in.