The world’s leading causes of death in 2001 were heart disease and stroke, according to a new study on global health.

Researcher Alan Lopez, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health in Brisbane, Australia, combed through thousands of data sources from all over the globe on 136 diseases and injuries in 2001. The results were published in "The Lancet."

Among their findings:

--Slightly more than 56 million people died in 2001.

--Those deaths included 10.6 million children, almost all of whom (99 percent) lived in low- and middle-income countries.

--More than half of the children died from five preventable or treatable conditions: Respiratory infections; measles; diarrhea; malaria; HIV/AIDS

--HIV/AIDS in Africa and setbacks in health for the former Soviet Union offset gains against other diseases.

The study shows that one in three deaths was due to communicable diseases, nutritional deficiencies, and health problems in pregnant women, new mothers, fetuses, or newborns.

HIV Pandemic Surging Worldwide

Top 10 Causes of Death

Heart disease and stroke were the leading causes of death in 2001, regardless of countries’ incomes, the study shows.

However, other leading causes of death differed depending on countries’ incomes. Here is the list for high-income countries:

1. Heart disease

2. Stroke

3. Lung cancer

4. Lower respiratory infections

5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

6. Colon and rectum cancers

7. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias

8. Type 2 diabetes

9. Breast cancer

10. Stomach cancer

Here is the list for low- and middle-income countries:

1. Heart disease

2. Stroke

3. Lower respiratory infections

4. HIV/AIDS

5. Fetus/newborn (perinatal) conditions

6. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

7. Diarrhea

8. Tuberculosis

9. Malaria

10. Road traffic accidents

Improvements, Setbacks

Lopez and colleagues saw some gains and setbacks, compared to the study’s 1990 findings.

“Worldwide, HIV/AIDS and malaria are large and growing causes of death and disease burden, especially in sub-Saharan Africa,” the researchers write, adding that the records show some progress in Africa against measles, acute respiratory infections, and diarrhea.

They also note that countries of the former Soviet Union had “setbacks” in adult deaths during the 1990s. The study doesn’t show a reason for that pattern, but the “absence of sustained health monitoring and policies” in those countries may have played a role, the researchers note.

They add that while health records have improved in some parts of the world, some countries have more detailed records than others.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed By Ann Edmundson, MD

SOURCES: Lopez, A. The Lancet, May 27, 2006; vol 367: pp 1747-1757. News release, The Lancet.