Number of adults living with diabetes quadrupled over past 35yrs – WHO

© Heinz-Peter Bader
The number of adults estimated to be living with diabetes has nearly quadrupled over the past 35 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The UN health agency has urged healthier diets and increased levels of physical activity.

In its first ever global report on the disease, the WHO said on Wednesday that the number of adults with the disease had increased to 422 million (8.5 percent of the world's adults) by 2014, compared to 108 million (4.7 percent) in 1980.

Diabetes "is one of the leading killers in the world today," said Etienne Krug, who is heading the WHO's response to the disease.

The disease directly killed 1.5 million people in 2012, and elevated blood glucose levels linked to diabetes led to an additional 2.2 million deaths that year.

According to the organization, the dramatic surge has been caused by worldwide changes in “the way people eat, move, and live.”

The region worst affected by the disease was the WHO’s Western Pacific region, which includes China and Japan. The area had 131 million estimated cases in 2014.

The second-most affected region was Southeast Asia, with 96 million cases. That region includes the heavily-populated countries of India and Indonesia.

Third and fourth on the list were Europe and the Americas, with 64 million and 62 million cases, respectively.

The organization warned that in order to curb the rise of diabetes, efforts are need to change “eating and physical activity habits," especially early in life.

"There is a critical window for intervention to mitigate the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life," the report said.

While the report noted a rise in the consumption of sugary drinks and other fattening foods, it particularly focused on high rates of physical activity.

Although the WHO recommends that adults aged 18-65 get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, worldwide figures from 2010 showed that nearly a quarter of people over the age of 18 didn't meet the minimum required amount of physical activity. Women were reported to be less active than men.

The report stressed that “physical inactivity is alarmingly common among adolescents," noting that extremely sedentary lifestyles are more prevalent in high-income countries than low-income countries.

Noting the financial strain caused by diabetes, the WHO estimated that the annual global cost of the disease exceeds US$827 billion. It went on to cite a separate study in which the agency said that global GDP losses linked to diabetes could reach $1.7 trillion by 2030, with the damage split evenly between developed and developing countries.

In terms of reaching a solution to the diabetes crisis, WHO chief Margaret Chan stated that "effectively addressing diabetes does not just happen."

"It is the result of collective consensus and public investment in interventions that are affordable, cost-effective and based on the best available science," she said.