Unhealthy Britain – the NHS lags behind Europe

New research suggests the UK is lagging behind progress being made by similar countries on many indicators for ill health.

Health data over 20 years was compared with figures from 18 other countries in the research published in the Lancet. Although average life expectancy has risen by four years since 1990, it says the UK needs to increase its strategies for tackling preventable problems such as heart disease and stroke.

We are living longer but not in good health

UK Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said he has a plan to address the lag. The team of experts from the UK and the University of Washington in Seattle said the UK had a high burden of smoking-related illnesses, and greater priority should be given to reducing lung disease.

There must be extra focus on Smoking, Alzheimer’s Disease and Snoring.

There was also a large rise in the number of recorded deaths related to Alzheimer’s Disease. Snoring and sleep apnoea is also overlooked as a serious contributor to poor health as we age.

Many deaths happen because the NHS is not good enough at preventing people getting sick or because the treatment given does not rival that seen elsewhere in Europe, says Mr Hunt who is responsible for health policy in England.

He says up to 30,000 lives a year could be saved if England performed as well as its European neighbours.

Mr Hunt has announced plans to cut the death toll caused by the UK’s five avoidable big killers – cancer, heart, stroke, respiratory and liver disease.

The big five avoidable killers

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Lung disease
  • Liver disease

He wants more people to go for regular health checks to spot diseases earlier and he is calling for better joining up of NHS services so that patients don’t get lost in the system.

In the 20 years from 1990 to 2010 that The Lancet study examined, average life expectancy increased by 4.2 years in the UK to 79.9 years. But the premature death rate had hardly changed in the UK for both men and women aged 20-54.

Among the leading causes were heart disease, cancers and chronic lung disease.

These are linked to avoidable risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, snoring and obesity, which are still all too common in the UK, say Chris Murray, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, USA, and colleagues who carried out the analysis of global data. But progress is being made on conditions like diabetes, where the UK appears to be ahead of many of its European neighbours and other high-income countries like the US and Canada.

Prof Murray says the UK also faces fresh challenges, like its growing burden of disability from alcohol use, the rapid growth of snoring and sleep apnoea due to lifestyle, and a 137% rise in deaths linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

He and his team also acknowledged that making firm conclusions based on data from different countries was inherently problematic – not all record the same information and each has its own unique issues and policies that made interpretation and comparison difficult.

Leading UK health risk factors

  • Tobacco smoke (including second-hand smoke)
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Too little exercise
  • Alcohol use
  • Poor diet

Many of these can be identified through heavy snoring and are closely related to these factors – something that can be easily taken in hand.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggested people in the UK were living in good health for longer.

But the UK still measures up poorly compared with other countries – it ranked 12 out of the 19 countries in the Lancet study.

Britons have 68.6 years of healthy life, whereas people in the top-ranked country, Spain, have 70.9 years of healthy life on average.

Public Health England, a new division of the Department of Health that will come into being in April 2013 along with the NHS organisational reforms, called the report a wake-up call.

How many healthy years will you live?


Rank Country HealthyYears LifeSpan
1 Spain 70.9 81.4
2 Italy 70.2 81.5
3 Australia 70.1 81.5
4 Sweden 69.6 81.4
5 Canada 69.6 80.6
6 France 69.5 80.9
7 Austria 69.1 80.6
8 Netherlands 69.1 80.6
9 Germany 69 80.2
10 Ireland 68.9 79.9
11 Greece 68.7 79.6
12 UK 68.6 79.9
13 Portugal 68.6 79.4
14 Belgium 68.5 79.5
15 Luxembourg 68.4 80.2
16 Norway 68 80.8
17 USA 67.9 78.2
18 Denmark 67.9 78.9
19 Finland 67.3 80.1

By John Redfern