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Serious Health-Related Suffering to Nearly Double by 2060, Highlighting Need to Ramp Up Palliative Care Efforts

Jaime Rosenberg
By 2060, an estimated 48 million people each year will die with serious health-related suffering, representing an 87% increase from 2016.
Patients with serious illnesses experience a significant burden of suffering, and research has shown that palliative care can relieve suffering for patients and families, as well as save money for health systems. However, 45% of countries have no access to palliative care. In fact, the global burden of serious health-related suffering is expected to nearly double in the next 4 decades, according to a new study.

Published in The Lancet Global Health, the study found that by 2060, an estimated 48 million people annually will die with serious health-related suffering, representing an 87% increase from 2016. With this increased prevalence, serious health-related suffering will account for 47% of all deaths in 2060, up from 45% in 2016.  

“Palliative care and the relief of suffering have been described as one of the most neglected dimensions of global health,” wrote the researchers. “In 2018, the Lancet Commission on Palliative Care and Pain Relief stated that no other important health intervention is as lacking or inequitably distributed as pain relief, the pillar of palliative care.”

Conditions expected to drive the increased prevalence include cancer, cerebrovascular disease, lung disease, and dementia. While cancer deaths will account for the most serious health-related suffering in all regions, dementia will have the most rapid increase by 2060, for which the need for palliative care is expected to increase 4-fold.

While countries of all incomes are expected to experience and increase, the overwhelming majority (83%) of these deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries. Low-income countries will also experience the largest increase during the time period (155%). Meanwhile, lower-middle–income countries will experience an 87% increase and upper-middle–income countries will experience an 88% increase.

High-income countries will experience a 57% increase, representing 3 million more people dying from serious health-related suffering.

These increases in serious health-related suffering will occur most rapidly among older people, with more than 22 million people aged 70 years and older experiencing suffering (183% increase).

Notably, suffering is expected to decrease among younger age groups, ranging from 0 to 49 years, except in low-income countries, which will experience a 5% increase in suffering among children aged 5 to 14 years and among those aged 30 to 49 years.

“Our findings call for global policies to strengthen healthcare systems through availability of essential drugs to relieve symptoms, staff training, and public education, with a focus on the populations that will experience the fastest rise of suffering and need,” said Katherine Sleeman, MBc, MBBS, MRCP, PhD, NHIR clinician scientist and honorary consultant in palliative medicine at the Cicely Saunders Institute at King’s College London and lead author of the study, in a statement.


Sleeman K, Brito M, Etkind S, et al. The escalating global burden of serious health-related suffering: projections to 2060 by world regions, age groups, and health conditions [published online May 22, 2019]. Lancet Glob Health. doi: 10.1016/S2214-109X(19)30172-X.

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