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

The UK is failing young people compared with other countries, according to a new report Credit: Ben Birchall/PA

British children and young people are more likely to be obese, suffer poverty and have a longstanding illness than youngsters in other countries, according to a new report

A comparison of the lives of 10 to 24-year-olds in the UK with those of young people in 18 other countries found the UK is lagging behind on some key markers of health.

The new report, from the Nuffield Trust and the Association for Young People’s Health (AYPH), found that the UK has the highest rates of obesity for 15 to 19-year-olds among 14 European countries, including Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Greece and Germany.

Children and young people in the UK are also far more likely to be obese if they are poor. The UK has some of the highest inequalities between the richest and poorest when it comes to the proportion that are obese, the study found.

On poverty among older age groups, the report added: “Despite living in the world’s fifth-largest economy, young people aged 20 to 24 in the UK are experiencing one of the highest rates of severe material deprivation among the countries in our international comparison.

“Reducing poverty among young people is key to improving their health outcomes in the UK.”

The study also found that England has the highest proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 living with a longstanding health condition, rising from 13.5% of this age group in 2008 to 18.5% in 2016.

This is higher than in other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Spain.

Exercise levels among 11-year-olds in England and Wales are also poor, while young people in the UK are more likely to die from asthma than in any other European country studied.

Of 19 countries researched overall, the UK also had the highest rate of girls aged 15 to 19 giving birth, apart from New Zealand and the US.

There are also more teenagers aged 15 to 19 in the UK not in education, employment or training (known as Neets).

Researchers said some of the health indicators in the UK are getting worse, including obesity, longstanding illness and exercise levels.

And they said the asthma mortality rate in the UK is 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.

Researchers analysed data from the mid-1990s to the last year for which data is comparable with other countries.

Nuffield Trust chief executive Nigel Edwards 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.”

Emma Rigby, chief executive at the Association for Young People’s Health, said: “We need more understanding of young people’s health needs, improved support for young people to understand and manage their own health, and we need to provide more youth-friendly health services.”

Louise Meincke, head of policy and public affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund, said: “These devastating figures further highlight that we urgently need to do more, as a society, to protect our children’s health.

“Children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, and this increases their risk of 12 different cancers and other life-threatening conditions.

“We want governments to introduce better policies that encourage healthy environments, including physical activity, for young people from all backgrounds to give them the best start in life.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We want our children to have the best start in life and are taking action to help people live longer and healthier lives.

“We have world-leading plans in place to safeguard child health by combating obesity, improving mental health and vaccinating against some of the world’s deadliest diseases.

“Prevention is at the heart of the NHS Long Term Plan, and as part of this, we are increasing funding by an average 3.4% per year – meaning that by 2023/24 it will receive £20.5 billion a year more than it currently does.”