The high price of digestive diseases

A new Europe-wide study highlights the worrying increase in the prevalence of various digestive diseases since 2000.

Over 300 million people in Europe affected by digestive diseases

According to the study, over 300 million people in Europe and the Mediterranean region are affected by digestive diseases, which cause significant economic costs. The incidence and prevalence of many digestive diseases are highest among the very young and the elderly. Due to the ageing of the European population, this disease burden will inevitably increase.   

As the researchers have shown, the age-standardised incidence and mortality of liver and pancreatic cancer has increased in most European countries since 2000. In particular, alcohol consumption, obesity and other modifiable lifestyle factors were identified as major contributors to the overall burden of these digestive disorders. Another cause for concern: the results also showed that the incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing in young adults.

The researchers were able to identify a high body mass index (BMI) across the continent as a reason for the increasing burden of digestive disorders. In addition, alcohol consumption continues to be a major contributor to the burden of disease, although some progress has been made since 2000 in reducing the burden of disease attributable to alcohol. Smoking as a risk factor has been reduced thanks to adherence to national intervention strategies. 

Higher burden of digestive diseases in disadvantaged countries

Much of the social and economic disparities at the population level can explain the discrepancies in the burden of digestive diseases between countries. The UEG report finds that the estimated cost of inpatient healthcare (excluding treatment and diagnostics) for digestive diseases across the EU is about $20 billion in 2021.

"The health, economic and social burden of digestive diseases is increasing at an alarming rate," said Helena Cortez-Pinto, President of the UEG, adding that: 

"Our health systems and economies are already in a precarious position and urgent action is needed to address these burdens through public education, lifestyle change and research to reverse these alarming trends." 

If premature mortality due to digestive diseases could be reduced by 25% in the 31 European countries, the estimated savings from avoided productivity loss would total €11.4 billion (in 2019). This figure could be significantly increased in combination with an even greater reduction.  

Implications for further research on the burden of digestive diseases

The Chair of the UEG Research Committee, Luigi Ricciardiello, stated that "strong health inequalities persist across Europe, and with economic challenges looming, we expect these inequalities to worsen. Unfortunately, despite their high prevalence and global impact, many diseases of the digestive tract remain poorly understood and receive relatively little attention from both a political and financial perspective."

In 2014, the UEG already conducted a similar study which pointed to similar burdens. As only limited improvements have been made since then, the results and findings of this latest UEG study will hopefully help accelerate progress in reducing the burden of digestive disorders. In addition, the report will help to identify priority areas where research and investment is needed, both across Europe and in individual countries.

Tanith Rose, lead researcher of the study commissioned by UEG, summarises:

"The lack of progress over the past two decades in reducing the incidence of digestive tract diseases highlights the need for a greater application of effective prevention strategies. Social and economic factors contribute to significant differences in the burden of most digestive diseases, and efforts to reduce the burden that do not take these factors into account are likely to have limited success."