Almost 65 years after the creation of a state-run medical system for all, the U.K. is falling behind its peers in measures of health and lifespan as smoking and drug use take their toll.
A “startling increase” in Alzheimer’s disease over the past two decades as well as a spike in drug and alcohol abuse among young people have held the U.K. back as 14 other members of the European Union and the U.S. showed improvement, a team of U.S. researchers reported today in The Lancet medical journal.
The only exception was among men older than 55, where the U.K. saw significantly faster declines in premature death rates compared with 18 other countries including the U.S., the study showed. Deaths from drug and alcohol abuse among adults between 20 to 54 years old have offset the reduction in mortality from cervical cancer and road injuries, the researchers said.
In 2010, the U.K. ranked 14th in both death rates and life expectancy at birth, a decline from 12th place in 1990. Australia was No. 1 in both measures. For healthy life expectancy at birth, or the number of years before disability sets in, the U.K. ranking was unchanged over the two decades at 12th place. Spain ranked No. 1.
“There is 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,” Edmund Jessop, vice president of the U.K.’s Faculty of Public Health, wrote in a comment alongside the study.
The news wasn’t all bad for Britons, whose taxes fund a comprehensive medical system that is free at the point of care. The U.K. had significantly lower premature death rates from diabetes, liver cancer and chronic kidney diseases than its European peers, the study found. In the last 20 years, diet has improved, and the country has “some of the safest roads in Europe,” Jessop said.
The findings “do not provide a simple verdict on the performance of the U.K. health system,” Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, wrote in an editorial. “They do offer a quantitative means to monitor measures of health and disease and to enable more rational review and discussion of health priorities.”
The researchers, led by Chris Murray from the University of Washington in Seattle, analyzed data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study in 2010. They looked at patterns of poor health and death, determined the impact of preventable risk factors such as smoking, and ranked the U.K. against 18 other high-income countries including Germany, France, Canada and Australia. The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In the U.S., the researchers found life expectancy lagged behind men in 37 countries including Greece, South Korea and Lebanon. HIV infection is more of a health burden in the U.S. than in the U.K., Germany and Australia, they found.