Healthy living

UK life expectancy rising, despite obesity

UK life expectancy on the rise Higher in UK than US

Life expectancy in the UK and Europe is on the rise despite an obesity epidemic, with people in Britain living longer than those in the US, according to a new report.

Professor David Leon, a population health expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, put together the report after analysing trends over the last 40 years.

The surprising findings fly in the face of fears that the rising life expectancy seen in high income countries may be coming to an end because of obesity related illness.

For the past five years, life expectancy in most western European countries has been heading in a "positive direction" for the first time in decades.

In the UK, life expectancy has been "steadily rising," Dr Leon said. In 2007, life expectancy in the UK was 80 compared with 78 in the US.

A major factor behind the UK figures has been a decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease. According to Dr Leon, the UK has seen "some of the largest and most rapid falls of any Western European country, partly due to improvements in treatment as well as reductions in smoking and other risk factors."

He points out that despite spending more on health care than any other country in the world, US life expectancy is at the same level as the worst performing countries in Western Europe. Life expectancy rates for US women are also increasing at a much slower pace than those in Western Europe.

"This simple observation once again underlines that GDP and health care expenditure per capita are not good predictors of population health within high income countries," Professor Leon wrote in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

However, lest we become complacent, he also warns that the effect of rising rates of obesity on life expectancy may appear down the line. Currently the UK has the highest obesity rate in Europe.

Within Europe there is an east/west divide when it comes to life expectancy.

In 2008, life expectancy was 77.9 years for UK men and 82 years for women, but in Russia, men could expect to live to 61.8 and women to 74.2 years, according to data from the WHO and the Human Mortality Database.

Dr Leon said it was "shocking" that life expectancy in Russia only returned in 2008 to the level it was 40 years earlier. He suggested the most recent figures were down to a reduction in the number of alcohol related deaths, rather health improvements seen in the rest of Europe.

This article was published on Fri 18 March 2011

Image © Yuri Arcurs -

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