Life expectancy in England has hit a record high, as deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke continue to fall, the Health Profile of England 2007, published by the Department of Health, has revealed.

But the report also highlights areas in which progress is slow: regional health inequalities are still a problem, it says, with female and male life expectancies at birth falling two years and two and a half years short, respectively, in Northern areas compared to their Southern equivalents; and nationwide hospital admissions due to obesity, diabetes and alcohol continue to climb.

“There is still a lot to do in tackling health inequalities,” admitted Health Minister Dawn Primarolo in response to the Health Profile's findings. But she went on to say that, to help address this issue, the government has “already announced major improvements to GP services across the country - greater flexibility in opening times, and over 100 new GP practices in the 25% of primary care trusts with the poorest provision.”

Obesity rates highest in EU

The results also paint a mixed picture in terms of the country’s performance against its peers in the European Union. While early death from the two biggest killers - circulatory disease and cancer – is declining faster in England than the average for the EU, the prevalence of obesity is the highest, and deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis have risen above the EU-15 average.

Obesity has frequently been in the media spotlight of late, as awareness of the magnitude of the problem is starting to take hold. Last week, the hard-hitting Foresight report Tackling Obesities: Future Choices predicted that, by 2050, 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and about 25% of all children under 16 could be obese, with associated costs to the economy spiralling to £45 billion by 2050.

"We are planning a long-term, cross-government drive for action on obesity,” Primarolo promised, in an attempt to again allay growing fears over the rather gloomy situation in England. “Our ambition is to reverse the rising tide of obesity and overweight in the population, by enabling everyone to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Our initial focus will be on children: By 2020, we aim to reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to 2000 levels.”

But as Dr Colin Waine, Chair of the National Obesity Forum, told PharmaTimes last week, this target “could do with rethinking”, given that childhood obesity was already at crisis level back in 2000.