New Zealand has the highest death rates in the world for a horrific disease that takes away a person's ability to speak, move and eventually breathe - a study reveals.

The Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland analysed data from the 2264 New Zealanders who died from motor neurone disease between 1992 and 2013.

The study showed that the proportion of people in New Zealand who die from MND was higher than any other country the study examined.

The average 131 New Zealanders who die from MND every year was 53 people more than the international average.


Internationally, an average of 1.67 people per 100,000 die from MND each year. That's compared to 2.8 per 100,000 in New Zealand.

Although MND was a disease seen more commonly in older people, the study showed it wasn't the sole reason for New Zealand's high rates.

Dr Emma Scotter, who led the study, said New Zealand doesn't have higher MND mortality rates just due to living longer, or having a greater proportion of older people in our population.

"It's something other than just an age effect," Scotter said.

She said this study was only the beginning of looking into what was causing these high rates.

"We conducted this study as a foundation for our own research on changes in brain cells and brain tissue in MND.

"We believe we can learn why people in New Zealand develop MND, help in the search towards therapies, and champion for people in New Zealand with MND to have access to such therapies," Scotter said.

Scotter's team also found that the rates of MND were significantly less in Māori, suggesting that Māori may have protective factors for MND.


"There are healthcare disparities that reduce the number of Māori with MND who are diagnosed appropriately."

New Zealand-born racing driver Neil Cunningham, a James Bond movie stunt driver who had appeared as The Stig on TV show Top Gear, was just one life claimed by MND. The father-of-three was 52 when he died in May 2016.