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Improving life expectancy in Africa is threatened by lifestyle diseases

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Overall, death rates have been dropping in sub-Saharan Africa since the beginning of the 21st century. The average life expectancy has increased to 62 years for men and 66 years for women with small variations between different regions of the continent.

The reasons for overall improvements in life expectancy include decreased death rates among children under five years of age due to gains in vaccination, water and sanitation, and use of insecticide-treated bed nets that ward of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Mothers’ increased education levels and rising individual incomes have also contributed to the decrease in child deaths.

Further, there has been a reduction in deaths from HIV/AIDS and some other infections. Additional reasons for the reductions in death rates in some countries include social factors such as better job opportunities, working conditions, social support, and housing.

While these improvements deserve to be celebrated, caution is necessary as it’s not inevitable that death rates will keep falling. In fact, a new threat is lurking in the shadows from non-communicable diseases. Rising epidemics of high blood pressure, high blood sugar (diabetes), alcohol use and obesity in some African countries could reverse the gains. This is because these lifestyle diseases increase the rate of heart attack, stroke and other causes of death. Individuals, health practitioners and governments must work together to prevent and treat these chronic non-communicable diseases.

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