A new study suggests that with respect to health outcomes, the UK has not kept pace with some other countries. Information was collected in 1990 and again in 2010 to compare life expectancy, the leading cause of death and risk factors for disease and disability in the UK and other industrialised countries across Europe, as well as the US, Canada, and Australia.

Main findings

Although life expectancy in the UK increased by just over 4 years in the 20 year study period, this is comparably less than other countries; additionally we have a higher death rate and a greater figure for the number of years by which people were dying prematurely. Heart and lung disease, as well as breast cancer, were more common in the UK than in other countries in the study. In 2010 Alzheimer’s disease, cirrhosis of the liver and drug use made a greater contribution to premature deaths in the UK than it did 20 years previously.

Mental health problems and disorders of the musculoskeletal system contributed most to people living with a disability. Smoking was identified as the main risk for disease, followed by raised blood pressure and body mass index as a measure of overweight. A poor diet and inactivity contributed nearly 15% towards disability in the UK. Those conducting the research concluded that the UK is falling behind other countries with respect to premature deaths and people living with disability, highlighting that this needed to be addressed, particularly as many of the top ten causes of death are preventable diseases. Although steps towards better health have been made, there is still much room for improvement.

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Not all bad news

While it appears that the UK is not as healthy as many other westernised countries, some positives were highlighted by the study. The UK does have fewer years of lost life due to traffic accidents, diabetes, cancer of the liver and chronic kidney disease compared to others that were surveyed. Additionally, we have some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in Europe and despite smoking being the biggest contributing factor to death, this might relate to historical trends instead of any failing in the health service to help people to quit and to treat smoking-related diseases; after all smoking rates did not start to fall until the 1970s. The increased rates of Alzheimer’s disease may simply be due to the rise in life-expectancy, as it is a condition associated with old age.