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Neurological conditions encompass a wide range of health issues from diabetic neuropathy to migraines. Bisual Studio/Stocksy Photo
  • A new report finds that 1 in 3 people globally are affected by neurological conditions.
  • This makes them the leading cause of disability and poor health.
  • The authors call for increased resources spanning from prevention to treatments.
  • Diabetic neuropathy is now the fastest-growing neurological condition.

A new report finds that neurological conditions impact a huge swath of the population, with one in three people affected globally.

Neurologic conditions generally affect the brain, spinal cord, or muscles and can lead to movement disorders or changes in emotions and behavior.

Some of these conditions are present from birth, while others might only affect people in their twilight years.

They might involve nerves, the brain, muscles, or the immune system. Some are preventable, some can be cured, but for others, there are no available treatments.

The recent large-scale report was published in The Lancet Neurology this week. The study investigates the global impact of 37 neurological disorders, including stroke, diabetic neuropathy, migraines, and others.

The authors found that, in 2021, 3.4 billion people globally were living with neurological conditions. These conditions were responsible for 11.1 million deaths.

“Our research showed that more than 40% of all people globally have some neurological health loss — a very large proportion of the population,” Valery Feigin, PhD, director of the National Institute for Stroke and Applied Neuroscience at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, explained to Healthline.

“I and my other senior authors were surprised to see the enormous and fast-growing impact of neurological disorders,” Feigin said. “There were about 440 million years of healthy life lost around the globe, either to decreased quality of life living with disease or death from these conditions,” he continued.

The report shows that neurological conditions are the primary cause of poor health and disability worldwide, pushing cardiovascular disease into second place.

The report uses a measure called disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), which captures the burden of disability, illness, and premature death. The report shows that DALYs attributed to neurological conditions have increased by a sizable 18% since 1990.

The authors were surprised by this growth. Feigin told Healthline, “In 2016, we showed that neurological disorders were the leading cause of DALYs and the second leading cause of deaths among 15 conditions – now, they are leading for both.”

Deaths from neurological conditions disproportionately occur in low- and middle-income regions.

“The burden of neurological disorders is concentrated in lower-resource settings — more than 80% of deaths and DALYs. The highest age-standardized DALYs were in western and central sub-Saharan Africa, and the lowest was in Australasia and high-income Asia Pacific,” explained Prof. Feigin.

This disparity is partly because high-income countries have significantly more neurological professionals per 100,000 individuals than less wealthy countries — in some cases, 70 times more.

According to the new report, the top neurological conditions in 2021 were:

  • stroke
  • neonatal encephalopathy: brain injury often caused by lack of oxygen during birth
  • migraine
  • dementia
  • diabetic neuropathy: nerve damage caused by diabetes
  • meningitis
  • epilepsy
  • neurological complications from preterm birth
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • cancers of the nervous system

Overall, neurological conditions impact males more than females.

However, the reverse is true for some conditions, including migraine and pressure headaches.

Since 1990, the absolute number of people living with or dying from neurological conditions has increased. However, age-standardized DALY rates have decreased. In other words, the growth in absolute numbers is primarily due to people living longer lives.

As the authors write, the increase in lifespan “has also led to increases in age-related neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.”

For the first time, this report included neurological conditions related to COVID-19, like Guillain-Barré syndrome. “About half of neurological infection cases in 2021 were COVID-19-related, accounting for 23 million cases globally,” said Prof. Feigin.

The fastest-growing neurological condition is now diabetic neuropathy, with 206 million cases in 2021. Feigin told Healthline that “​​diabetic neuropathy appeared to be the 5th highest ranked neurological disorder by DALYs.”

Global cases have increased threefold since 1990 due to the ongoing rise in type 2 diabetes.

However, the burden of some neurological conditions has decreased. This is largely thanks to research and vaccination programs. For instance, brain damage caused by tetanus, rabies, and meningitis are all declining.

The paper also focused on modifiable risk factors for some neurological conditions, including stroke and dementia. They conclude that addressing these could significantly lower DALYs:

  • Stroke: Controlling high blood pressure and reducing household air pollution could prevent up to 84% of stroke DALYs.
  • Idiopathic intellectual disability: Reducing exposure to lead could prevent 63.1%. of DALYs.
  • Dementia: Controlling blood sugar levels could reduce DALYs by 14.6%.

Healthline also spoke with Dr. David Merrill, Ph.D., a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

Merrill, who was not involved in the study, spoke about the importance of prevention in dementia: “40% of cases are preventable by addressing one or more of 12 modifiable risk factors.”

These risk factors include high blood pressure, obesity, alcohol intake and smoking, among others.

“These findings provide solid evidence for healthcare policymakers of 204 countries on the exact national needs for workforce development, setting priorities for healthcare planning, resources allocation, research, and prevention,” Feigin said.

However, there are many challenges, including a shortage of experts and vast “differences in access to child neurologists and specialist services.”

“The biggest challenge now,” Feigin told us, “is to halt and eventually reverse the growing burden of neurological disorders. We also need to start actively implementing preventative measures for those neurological disorders for which we already have evidence-based prevention strategies.”

Beyond policy changes, Merrill reminds us that there are things we can do to reduce our risk:

“Our health-related behaviors make a difference. We can lower our risk of developing chronic neurologic conditions like dementia through optimizing our lifestyle-related behaviors. That includes regular exercise, socializing, cognitive stimulation, and a healthy diet.”

A new report finds that types of neurological conditions impact a huge swath of the population with 1 in 3 people affected globally.