Christopher Murray: Life, Not Death, is Focus of New Health Metrics

Jeremy Smith
Discover Magazine

It’s Monday morning in Seattle, and Christopher Murray and I are glued to his computer screen, watching how the world dies. A drop-down menu offers choices from measles and cirrhosis to eating disorders and self-harm. I choose road traffic injuries and see a map divided into 187 countries, each color-coded by incidence: blue for safest, fire engine red for most deadly. Commuting in Sweden or Singapore? Go ahead, gas up. Traversing Gabon or Angola? Buckle up and pray.

The maps represent the ascendance of a new accounting of life and death led by Murray, a still-boyish-looking salt-and-pepper-haired 50-year-old who is the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Rather than focus only on how many people were killed by a particular malady, as others measuring death and disease do, IHME emphasizes the number of years of healthy life lost.

Take the traffic maps in front of me. Using data released in December 2012, Murray and his colleagues have calculated that road accidents in 2010 cost humanity 75 million years of healthy life — more than measles, lung cancer, tuberculosis or iron-deficiency anemia. “If someone dies of cancer at age 75, maybe the disease has taken five years of his life,” explains Murray, whose group’s massive study, entitled “Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010,” shares the tolls by age, sex and country for 291 different health problems and 67 risks. “If he dies of a car crash at age 25, though, that has taken 55 years. And if he survives the car crash but suffers a severe spinal injury and then dies at age 60, that is both 20 years of life lost and 35 intervening years lived with disability.”

All of a sudden, asphalt might be worse for you than cigarettes.

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