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What's Most Likely To Kill You? Hint: Probably Not An Epidemic

Indian sand artist Sudersan Pattnaik touches up his sculpture for World No Tobacco Day at Golden Sea Beach in Puri, India.

Noncommunicable diseases have become the leading killers around the globe. In 2012, two-thirds of all deaths worldwide were the result of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory infections. The mortality rate from noncommunicable diseases was even higher in low- and middle-income countries.

What is it that's most likely to kill you? The World Health Organization says that in the 21st century, it's your lifestyle.

And it's not just a Western problem.

Around the world, lifestyles are changing rapidly — and not for the better. In low-income countries, diets are shifting to foods heavy in salt and fat. People working behind computers instead of plows are less active. Economic growth isn't always a plus for your health. Bigger paychecks can lead to drinking way too much.

Dr. Shanthi Mendis with the World Health Organization in Geneva says the threat of noncommunicable diseases is the biggest health challenge on the globe right now.

"It's a slow-motion public health disaster, seemingly invisible and rapidly gathering speed," she says. "The important thing to remember is it's not just killing a couple of thousands of people. It's killing millions, and it's going to kill millions for decades."

The No. 1 killer is cardiovascular disease, mainly heart attacks and strokes.

If people would change their diet, exercise more and get screened each year for risk factors, many of these heart attacks could be avoided, Mendis says.

WHO is now sending a message to the governments of the world: Put in place policies to try to cut salt intake, increase physical activity and reduce smoking.

"These diseases ... pose a much greater public health problem than any epidemic known to man," Mendis says. Indeed, in 2012, two-thirds of all deaths worldwide were the result of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory infections.

The mortality rate from noncommunicable diseases was even higher in low- and middle-income countries. These diseases are also making it harder for individuals — and countries — to rise out of poverty.

"Sixteen million people are dying in the 40s, 50s, 60s [each year]," Mendis says. So their productive years are turning into destructive years.

One positive note is that mortality rates from noncommunicable diseases are lower in high-income countries. That's because those countries began to address lifestyle issues decades ago, she says.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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