By Gordon Hull
I mean the title of this post literally. A recent study that surveyed global neurological disease incidence concluded that neurological disorders now are the leading global cause of disability, and that their rates are rapidly rising. A substantial portion of this is due to increasing rates of Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and other dementias; as the study concludes, “the most striking change has been the more than doubling of people in the world who die or are disabled from Alzheimer's disease and other dementias over the past 25 years.” The primary risk factor for these conditions is age, and the increase is clearly tied to increasing life expectancies. It may also in part explain why women (who generally have higher life expectancies than men) have a 22% higher burden from these diseases than men. Other results were similarly expected: the global rates of communicable neurological conditions like meningitis were declining due to vaccination programs; their burden was highest in low-income regions. The study concludes:
“In conclusion, we have shown that neurological disorders are a large cause of disability and death worldwide. Globally, the burden of neurological disorders has increased substantially over the past 25 years because of population ageing, despite substantial decreases in mortality rates from stroke and communicable neurological disorders. Because low-income and middle-income countries still have a long way to go through the demographic transition of reductions in child mortality and population ageing, the number of patients who will need neurological care will continue to grow in the coming decades. It is important that policy makers and health-care providers are aware of these past trends to be able to provide adequate services for the growing numbers of patients with neurological disorders”
This sort of headline, especially about the staggering burden that Alzheimer’s is going to place on the U.S. healthcare system as baby boomers enter old age, is relatively common. Buried in the headline-grabbing statistics, though, is a somewhat alarming data point: the rise in headaches. Between 1990 and 2015, the global prevalence of migraines shot up 49.6%, tension-type headaches 49.2%, and of medication-overdose headaches by 57.8% (table 1 in the linked article). The highest rates of headaches were in high-income regions. There is also a fairly sharp drop in the rate of headaches at around age 65 in the table accompanying the graph.
One hesitates to interpret too much on a quick read (there is a lot of data; the article is open access, so those with better quantitative skills should dive in!), but it’s hard not to notice that the years from 1990 to 2015 are also the years that global capitalism took its victory lap over communism, and celebrated with a neoliberal intensification of staggering proportions. It is also hard not to notice that 65 is retirement age.
Franco (“Bifo”) Berardi has been saying for a long time that the rise in global mental health disorders needs to be read as a symptom of capitalism’s intensification, a point on which Will Davies concurs (I intend to do a post on this at some point). In Berardi’s case, though, the argument has the feel of speculation. But here we have a data point that is difficult to explain otherwise: quite independently of how long one lives, life today, as Lenin once said of Hegel’s Logic, seems to be “a best means for getting a headache.”