Young people in the UK are more likely to die from asthma or have a poor quality of life from long-term conditions compared to counterparts in other high-income countries.
This was the conclusion of the first ever international comparison of young people’s health measures over time, which looked at the UK versus 18 other high-income countries.
“Making sure we have a healthy population requires us all to do our bit”
It was carried out by think-tank the Nuffield Trust and the Association for Young People’s Health, with the findings published in a report titled International comparisons of health and wellbeing in adolescence and early adulthood.
The report is based on analysis of 17 measures of the health and wellbeing of young people, aged 10-24, between the mid-1990s and the last year for which data are comparable.
The indicators examined by the report authors includes long-standing illnesses, alcohol consumption, cancer mortality, obesity and deprivation.
The UK sits in the bottom third of the comparative countries in nine out of 17 indicators, and in the top third in three.
In four out of 17 indicators, trends over time have been getting worse, and in five areas previous improvements have stalled.
Key findings from the report included that 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 behind the US, Australia and New Zealand.
“The crucial thing to note here is how important long-term health conditions are in the 10-24 age group2
The asthma mortality rate in the UK was around 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.
Overall, nearly one in five young people in the UK are estimated to be living with a long-standing health condition.
In addition, the UK is one of the worst countries for young people to suffer from years lost to ill health and the burden of their diseases like diabetes.
As well as having the highest rates of obesity in 15- to 19-year-olds, the UK also has one of the greatest differences in levels between those in the poorest areas of the country and the richest.
Meanwhile, the UK is in the middle compared to other countries on some indicators for young people, including cancer mortality, smoking, alcohol consumption and cannabis use.
Trends in health-related behaviours like smoking and alcohol consumption have been improving in recent years, with falls in smoking rates and use of cannabis, noted the researchers.
On the whole, they said the UK performed in the top third of countries on mortality rates for 10 to 19-year-olds.
Recently, however, progress has stalled and for young people aged 20-24 got worse between 2013 and 2016, they warned.
The report calls into question whether health services are adequately helping 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 received all seven key health care checks during the previous year of care.
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,” he said. “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,” he said.
“If we don’t take action now, the next generation will be entering adulthood sicker than the one before it,” he warned.
Emma Rigby, chief executive at the Association for Young People’s Health, added: “The crucial thing to note here is how important long-term health conditions are in the 10-24 age group.
“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,” she said.
“This will help improve our standing internationally in terms of youth health outcomes,” noted Ms Rigby.
More information on the study
The countries selected for their comparability with the UK were: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the US.
The 17 areas of comparison were: obesity, long-standing illness, exercise, deprivation, adolescent birth rate, asthma death rate, the burden of diseases on quality of life, diabetes, numbers of young people not in education for employment, cancer mortality, smoking, alcohol consumption, cannabis, suicide, overall mortality, transport injury death and impact of transport injury on quality of life.