Behaviours that lead to disease often emerge during childhood and adolescence.
Each year, non-communicable diseases claim 41 million lives: That’s about 70 per cent of all global deaths. Non-communicable diseases, also known as chronic diseases, disproportionately affect people in low- and middle-income countries.
While non-communicable diseases tend to manifest in adulthood, many have their origins in behaviours adopted during childhood and adolescence. Tobacco use, a lack of physical activity, unhealthy diets and excess drinking of alcohol all increase the risk of dying from a non-communicable disease.
Risk factors for these diseases are often preventable: Appropriate health interventions before, during and after pregnancy, and through childhood and adolescence, can significantly reduce their prevalence.
Addressing non-communicable diseases improves individual well-being and advances development. Because these diseases have implications for nutrition, education and the environment, greater action is needed from governments, businesses and communities to prevent them from becoming epidemics.
Main types of non-communicable diseases
These are the main types of non-communicable diseases and the associated risk factors:
Cardiovascular diseases account for the most non-communicable disease deaths. They include heart attacks and strokes.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it prevents. It’s a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks and strokes. Unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and tobacco use are all major contributing factors to diabetes.
The burden of cancer continues to grow globally, and many low- and middle-income countries do not have health systems that are prepared to manage this burden. That means that a significant number of patients worldwide do not have access to quality diagnosis and treatment.
Chronic respiratory diseases
Some of the most common respiratory diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and asthma. These conditions affect the airways and other structures of the lungs. Risk factors for chronic respiratory diseases include smoking and air pollution.
Mental health conditions
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised further concerns about the mental health of a generation of children, but the pandemic represents the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, mental disorders are a significant and often ignored cause of suffering that interfere with children’s and young people’s health and education and their ability to reach their full potential.
Unintentional injuries, such as road traffic crashes, drowning, falls, poisonings and burns and scalds, are the leading cause of death for children and adolescents worldwide.
UNICEF works with governments and partners to help reduce the risk factors associated with non-communicable diseases (NCDs). As a member of the United Nations Interagency Task Force on NCDs, we strive to integrate NCD prevention in our maternal, newborn and child health programmes.
Our work on non-communicable diseases extends beyond the health sector. We also support NCD prevention services in areas like education – particularly through school programmes – and child protection.
UNICEF advocates around NCD prevention and control efforts, influences national NCD policy, and empowers communities to generate demand and create public accountability.