UK lagging behind other comparable countries on young people’s health

Author: Caroline White

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Young people in the UK are more likely to die from asthma, be obese, and have a poor quality of life because of long-term conditions than their peers in other high-income countries, finds a joint report* published by health think tank, The Nuffield Trust, and the Association for Young People’s Health.

This is despite making healthier life choices for themselves than before, says the report, which provides the first ever international comparison of young people’s health measures over time in high-income countries comparable with the UK.

The countries are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the USA.

The report is based on analysis of 17 measures of the health and wellbeing of 10 to 24-year-olds, between the mid-1990s and the last year for which data are comparable. The indicators looked at include long-term conditions; alcohol consumption; cancer deaths; obesity and deprivation.

The comparison shows that the UK sits in the bottom third for nine of the indicators, and in the top third for just three. Trends over time have been getting worse for four indicators, while previous improvements have stalled in five areas. 

The UK has the highest rate of deaths from asthma for young people aged 10-24, compared to all European countries in the comparator group, and the fourth highest overall rate behind the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

The asthma death rate in the UK was approximately twice as high as that of the next worst country in Europe, and any improvements made have started to stall in the last few years.

Nearly one in five young people in the UK are estimated to be living with a long-term health condition, and the UK is one of the worst countries for young people to lose years to ill health and diseases like diabetes.

As well as having the highest rates of obesity in 15 to 19-year-olds compared to the 14 European countries, the UK also has one of the widest gaps in obesity levels between young people living in the poorest areas and those living in the richest.

The UK is in the middle of the pack on some indicators for young people, including cancer deaths, smoking prevalence, alcohol consumption and cannabis use.

The UK has some of the lowest rates of road traffic injury deaths, which have also been steadily improving over time. The authors put this down to a concerted effort from industry and government to improve road and vehicle safety.

On the whole, the UK comes in the top third of countries on death rates for 10 to 19-year-olds. But progress has stalled, and among 20-24 year olds, between 2013 and 2016.

The report calls into question whether health services are doing enough to help young people to manage their long-term conditions. For example, a National Paediatric Diabetes Audit for 2016–17 reported that only 43.6% of those aged over 12 had received all seven key health checks during the previous year.

These findings are made in the context of 20 to 24-year-olds in the UK having the third highest levels of material deprivation in Europe behind Greece and Italy, which, the authors argue is having a knock-on effect on all other indicators.

The findings should give the government and senior health leaders cause for concern, says the report: the health inequalities gap must be closed and cuts to public health budgets addressed if they are serious about reversing these worrying trends, it suggests.

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of the Nuffield Trust said: “Making sure we have a healthy population requires us all to do our bit. More than ever, young people are holding up their side of the bargain, with more of them choosing to smoke and drink less, yet our health system seems to be getting something badly wrong. I worry this reflects a dangerous complacency.

“Young people in the UK are entering adulthood with more long-term health conditions and as a result a poorer quality of life, storing up problems further down the line. If we don’t take action now, the next generation will be entering adulthood sicker than the one before it.”

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This report highlights yet again how far the UK is lagging behind other countries on a range of health measures, and provides further evidence of the urgent need to prioritise and invest in young people’s health.

“It is unacceptable that teenagers in the UK are more likely to be obese, die from asthma, and live with challenging long-term conditions than their peers living elsewhere.

“The emphasis on children and young people's health within the NHS Long-Term Plan provides a welcome platform from which to make significant inroads, but unless the government reverses cuts to public health budgets and addresses ongoing socio-economic inequalities, the UK has little chance of catching up with its European neighbours any time soon.”


*International comparisons of health and wellbeing in adolescence and early adulthood. A joint report by The Nuffield Trust and the Association for Young People’s Health, 20 February 2019.

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