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People living longer despite rising obesity

Growth in obesity and diabetes epidemics haven't yet halted rise in life expectancy, according to a new UK study
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed

18th March 2011 - We're used to warnings about the risks of the UK getting fatter, but despite growing waistlines, we're living longer.

Research by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has found that in the last five years life expectancy in most European countries has been going in a positive direction for the first time in decades.

Longevity up

Since 1950, estimated life expectancy at birth of the world’s population has been increasing, but there are still wide differences - with life expectancy falling in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, Sweden and Iceland have consistently topped the league tables of countries with the highest life expectancies in the world.

People in Britain reach an older age than those living in the US. In 2007, life expectancy in the US was 78 years compared to 80 in the UK.

Our smoking ban in public places seems to have helped. Deaths from cardiovascular disease in the UK have seen "some of the largest and most rapid falls of any Western European country, partly due to improvements in treatment as well as reductions in smoking and other risk factors".

Russia and other former Soviet countries fared less well, with life expectancy going up and down dramatically over the past 25 years. This, the research shows, is largely due to changes in heavy drinking, especially among men.

In the UK in 2008 life expectancy was 77.9 for men and 82 for women. In Russia, the figures for men were 61.8 and for women, 74.2.

Surprising findings

Epidemiologist and population health expert Professor David Leon carried out the analysis using data from the World Health Organisation and the Human Mortality Database. His article is published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Was he surprised by his findings? "I was in some ways, yes," he tells us. "The world's leader for obesity is the US. It is surprising to see that there's no evidence overall in a flattening out of improvements [in life expectancy], certainly not in the UK and any anywhere else in Western Europe."

Sex differences

"For men in particular, there have been steady improvements in all of Western Europe and that includes the UK," Leon says.

However, "Women in Britain are not doing generally as well as women in other Western European countries." British men's life expectancy, he says, are "bang in the middle of other Western European countries." British women though "are towards the bottom end."

The worse figures for women he blames on the female " smoking epidemic which was particularly severe in Britain" and peaked later for women than it did for men.
However it's not all bad news, "Again, there's a steady improvement in life expectancy for women in the UK."

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