The Department of Health has published the third annual Health Profile of England, showing improvements in critical areas of the nation’s health. Among the areas of improvement are a continued decline in the mortality rates from cancer, heart disease and suicides. Moreover, life expectancy is higher than ever. Infant mortality is at its lowest recorded level.

Both improvements in drugs (statins being the most obvious example) and investment and reform in NHS services have helped to address what the DH describes as the “targeted killers (cancers, all circulatory diseases and suicides).”

The figures also register a decline in the numbers of people who smoke (to which the smoking ban in bars and pubs has certainly contributed). Increases in the levels of both physical activity and fruit and vegetable consumption are also reported.

Inequalities and other problems persist
However, other trends revealed in the Health Profile highlight areas for further improvement. The levels of obesity in adults and children are continuing to increase.

Health inequalities remain in evidence from the data, which show geographical inequalities across the country, with a clear north / south divide. Public Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo, commented, “we are committed to reducing health inequalities, and have put in place the most comprehensive programme ever in this country to address them. Sir Michael Marmot is currently exploring future policy and action on reducing health inequalities in England."

The potential impact of the current economic recession will affect health status, but it is not known exactly how this will be manifest in future years. There will be a clear slowdown in the growth of NHS funding following the agreed settlement for 2010-11, due to reduced tax revenues and increased Government borrowing.

It is generally agreed that recessions increase levels of mental ill health, but also thought by some health economists that they may reduce levels of alcohol and cigarette consumption in the poorest sectors of the population.

The international perspective
Using the data to make international comparisons shows that premature mortality rates from cancer for males have fallen substantially faster over the last 30 years than the average of the EU’s 15 member states (and are now among the lowest in the EU-15). However, the prevalence of obesity in England is the highest in the EU-15 countries, and one of the highest in the wider cohort of OECD countries.

Calling (peak) time on drink consumption?
The Office for National Statistics has also published figures today, which indicate that the trend in alcohol-related deaths is now levelling out. These data show that there were 8,724 alcohol-related deaths in 2007, lower than in 2006.

The effects of rising alcohol consumption on the NHS are increasingly clear – not only in the increasing number of people with alcoholic liver disorders in their twenties and thirties, and more widely across sexes and social classes. There is also a significant impact on the Accident and Emeregency and ambulance services.

However, this will also reduce revenues to the exchequer – it was notable that the VAT cut from 17.5% to 15% was accompanied by an 8% increase in excise duty.