UK is lagging behind other rich countries on protecting young people’s health, new report finds

A new analysis of trends in health outcomes for young adults across a wide range of rich countries shows that the UK is doing remarkably poorly. David Kingman explains

When you look at much of the media coverage about the health of the Millennial generation, there seem to be two recurring themes. Firstly, Millennials are often hailed as “Generation Sensible” when it comes to protecting their health, because data suggest they are drinking less, smoking less, experimenting with fewer drugs and are less likely to have teenage pregnancies.

Secondly, coverage of health issues which affect the Millennial generation tends to be very much focused on mental health problems, because this is seen as the big health problem affecting this generation, while issues relating to physical health and disability have tended to receive somewhat less coverage.

Of course, the attention which is being given to Millennials’ mental health is much needed, given the pervasive stigma which used to surround talking about psychological problems; indeed, we at IF were keen to help encourage a more open discourse by hosting our recent mental health blog week. However, it is still quite unclear from the statistical evidence which we have available to us whether there really has been a substantial increase in mental health problems among this age group compared with previous generations, or whether this perception is mostly due to an increased awareness and willingness to discuss these problems in public.

Conversely, there is also some evidence that the “Generation Sensible” narrative may have been a bit overplayed, and that – rather than having been improving –  some of the physical and lifestyle-related health problems that affect this generation may actually have been getting worse.

A new report from the Nuffield Trust think tank has thrown the issue of young adults’ physical health into stark relief, by looking at how people aged 10–24 in the UK are doing on a wide range of physical health and wellbeing-related indicators compared with their peers in other developed countries.

Unfortunately, many of these comparisons are not particularly flattering to the UK, as they suggest that young adults here are doing worse in a large number of areas. Here are three of the most interesting conclusions from the Nuffield Trust’s report:

1. Obesity is a serious problem for the Millennial generation

One of the biggest flaws with the “Generation Sensible” narrative – which has generated a perception that Millennial young adults are much more clean-living than their parents and grandparents were at the same age – is that it completely overlooks the fact that the members of this generation are far more likely to be overweight or obese than their predecessors. Figures released last year showed that the prevalence of obesity within the population almost doubled between 1993 and 2015, and while middle-aged and older adults are still more likely to be overweight or obese than their younger counterparts, more of today’s young adults belong to this category than was the case amongst previous generations.

The Nuffield Trust’s research underlined the fact this is an area in which young adults in the UK do especially badly: their comparison shows that the UK has the highest rate of obesity for 15–19 year-olds among 14 comparator European countries, and also 11 year-olds in England and Wales spend less time exercising than their counterparts in any other European country.

Given the weight of evidence that obesity could be a looming public health crisis for young people, why does it seem to receive relatively little discussion in the media and among policy-makers? Perhaps part of the reason is that there is a very large social divide which influences whom it affects: the Nuffield Trust research also found that England and Wales has the second-largest differential for obesity prevalence between the richest and poorest members of society observed in any European country for which data was available, with Finland being the only place where it is bigger.

Social factors clearly play a big role in determining somebody’s risk of becoming overweight or obese, and the Millennials are in the vanguard of a remarkable process of socio-economic change which means that for almost the first time in human history, poorer people are now much more likely to be overweight or obese than wealthier ones. Given that the people who are most at risk of experiencing this problem are already likely to be socially marginalised, it is possibly unsurprising that the issue doesn’t receive more attention, but it is clearly a problem that requires urgent attention.

2. Chronic health problems are worse for young adults in the UK

The Nuffield Trust’s research also showed that young adults in the UK are, broadly speaking, more likely to have a long-term health condition than their counterparts in most other European countries, and, for certain conditions in particular, they suffer from demonstrably worse health outcomes. Looking at all long-term conditions, the Nuffield Trust’s research found that the UK had the highest rate of young people aged 16–24 living with a long-standing condition among 14 European comparator countries, with the exceptions of Finland and Sweden.

Two conditions on which the UK appears to do especially badly are asthma and diabetes: in addition to an unusually high proportion of young adults in the UK suffering from these two conditions compared with other European countries, the UK also has the highest asthma death rate for those aged 10–24 among rich countries apart from Australia, New Zealand and the United States. It’s unclear from the data exactly why this should be the case, but it does suggest that the ways in which the NHS treats young asthma patients could do with being reviewed as a matter of urgency to try and improve their treatment outcomes.

3. It’s not all doom and gloom

Although this article has only focused on the negative conclusions about young adults’ health in Britain which can be drawn from the Nuffield Trust’s comparative study, it is also worth pointing out that there are several grounds for optimism.

Firstly, the “Generation Sensible” tag does hold up pretty well to detailed scrutiny: members of this age group in the UK are indeed less likely to smoke, drink alcohol or try drugs than members of previous generations were, although this narrative does need to be caveated with the fact that this phenomenon is not exclusive to young adults in the UK, as the Nuffield Trust’s report makes clear.

The rate of teenage pregnancies in the UK is actually still higher than in many other rich countries, although – as was also suggested above – this is currently on a downward trend. The Nuffield Trust’s research also shows that the overall mortality rate for members of this age group is below average for rich countries, with deaths from road traffic accidents (which are one of the leading causes of death among young people worldwide) also being lower. However, even in this area there is a significant gap between the mortality rates among the richest and poorest young people, which suggests that we need to find ways of mitigating social injustice if we want to dramatically improve young adults’ health.

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