About 80 per cent of the country's premature deaths last year could likely have been prevented, new research shows.
The Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study 2019 also found Kiwis were now living longer but spending more years in poor health.
The international study, published in the Lancet today, analysed hundreds of causes of death, diseases and injuries in 204 countries and territories and found the increase in chronic diseases - many of which are preventable - left the world vulnerable to diseases like Covid-19.
According to the study, the life expectancy for New Zealanders last year was 81.8 years - an increase of 6.2 years - but our healthy life expectancy has only increased 4.7 years to 69.4. That means we are living longer in poor health.
It also found that non-communicable diseases caused 86 per cent of the country's premature deaths last year - an increase of 10.3 per cent over the past 30 years - and the top five
took the lives of 15,480 New Zealanders.
By far the most common cause was ischemic heart disease, which killed almost 6500. That was followed by strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia and lung cancer.
AUT Professor Valery Feigin said about 90 per cent of such diseases were preventable.
Feigin said it was concerning that such a high number of deaths were caused by non-communicable diseases although the situation was the same around the world.
In 11 countries, including New Zealand, more than half of all health loss was now caused by non-communicable diseases or injuries, the report's authors noted. Data shows that figure reached 83.5 per cent in New Zealand last year.
Blood pressure, poor diet, smoking, obesity and high blood sugar were factors in the deaths of more than 23,000 Kiwis last year.
The study's authors noted that improvements in health had started to stagnate in most higher-income countries, and had even reversed in several places, possibly because of
rising rates of obesity as well as diminishing potential to reduce smoking.
Feigin also pointed out that trend.
"What is particularly concerning is the number of deaths attributable to preventable deaths is starting to plateau and even increase lately," he said.
"Cardiovascular disease, since 2017, has started to climb up. We enjoyed a decrease during the past 30 years, quite significantly, but now it seems to be reversing."
The most common risk factors for non-communicable diseases were caused
by poor lifestyles, he said.
A poor diet and lack of exercise could lead to blood pressure issues, diabetes and obesity, which all put a strain on the body and could cause heart disease, strokes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - as can smoking.
Feigin said the health system was largely geared toward only treating those people who were high risk, which only prevented a small number of deaths.
The Government needed to shift its focus towards funding a population-wide prevention strategy for all of the risk factors as they had done with smoking, he said. Prevention strategies for other lifestyle risk factors were non-existent, he said.
Policies that reduced the amount of salt in processed food, reduced the consumption of sugary drinks and alcohol and made physical activity more affordable would go a long way to reducing the risk factors and preventing unnecessary deaths, Feigin said.
Hospitals already struggled to manage the number of people needing treatment for preventable chronic diseases but New Zealand's aging population meant that was only going to increase, he said.
Dr Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which carried out the study, agreed.
He said the push to reduce tobacco use had shown that telling people of the risks did not work but interventions like taxing cigarettes, regulating advertising and not allowing smoking indoors had made a difference.
When it came to the major risk factors like obesity, poor diets, high blood pressure and high glucose levels exhortation to live a healthier life did not work, he said.
"We have to think of ways where the default option is the healthy one - we make healthy choices easier."
By reducing those risk factors we could reduce the harm caused by pandemics like Covid-19, he said.
He said everybody was surprised just how important those risk factors were in people who contracted Covid.
"Obesity rates across countries is an indicator of just how bad the pandemic is going to be," he said of Covid.
Feigin said the one positive of Covid-19 had been the attention that it put on the need to prevent chronic diseases as those with underlying conditions fared worse.
"This has highlighted the importance of primary prevention, not just for Covid but for future pandemics," he said.