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UK health 'fails to keep pace with Europe, US'

Health Secretary promises action to redress the problem
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard

5th March 2013 - The UK is falling behind similar countries in improving health and increasing life expectancy, says a major study in The Lancet.

It says that, despite six decades of free health care with the NHS, although the overall health of the UK population has improved substantially in absolute terms from 1990 to 2010, the UK’s relative position had worsened compared to the 15 original members of the European Union, the US, Australia, Canada and Norway over the last 20 years.

The report has been drawn up by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, US and by several leading UK health experts.

Using data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2010, the team analysed patterns of ill health and death in the UK, calculated the contribution of preventable risk factors, and ranked the UK compared with a group of high-income countries with similar levels of health expenditure in 1990 and 2010.

Death rates

Only in men older than 55 years has the UK experienced significantly faster drops in death rates compared with other nations over the last 20 years.

In 2010, the UK had significantly lower premature mortality from diabetes, road injuries, liver cancer, and chronic kidney diseases than the average for the European countries. However, they found it has not kept pace with other nations for heart disease, lower respiratory tract infections, breast cancer, other heart and circulatory disorders, oesophageal cancer, congenital abnormalities, preterm birth complications, and aortic aneurysm.

The report says that even more worryingly, disability is causing a much greater proportion of the burden of disease as people are living longer, but spending these later years with more health problems compared to 20 years ago. For instance, in 2010, mental and behavioural disorders, such as depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, were responsible for more than half of all years lived with disability in the UK.


The researchers found that the UK’s worsening relative performance confirms the harmful effects of tobacco smoking which it says remains the nation’s leading risk factor for ill-health responsible for 11.8% of the disease burden in 2010, followed by the rising burden of high blood pressure (9%) and obesity (high body mass index) (8.6%).

Writing in a linked Comment, Edmund Jessop from the UK Faculty of Public Health in London points out: "The UK has done very well in the past 20 years in many areas. As Murray and colleagues show, mortality has reduced and several aspects of diet have improved, with drops in disability-adjusted life-years for all dietary risk factors examined. The UK has stronger tobacco control than does any other country in Europe, and we continue to enjoy some of the safest roads in Europe.”

However he cautions, "There is still plenty of room for bold action by politicians and the body politic: plain packaging for cigarettes, minimum pricing for alcohol, banning of trans fats, improved control of hypertension, and attention to psychiatric disorders. Alternatively, the UK can continue to languish at the bottom of European league tables."

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