In this post, we'll look at some key health stats to come out in news over the past year.

  • How unhealthy is the UK? Figures from the latest NHS survey
  • Lupus Awareness: Nearly Half of All Cases Initially Misdiagnosed
  • 'Meat Tax' Could Save Thousands of Lives Per Year, Scientists Say
  • National Diabetes Audit 2016-17: What does it tell us?
  • Which town has the most fast food outlets? PHE publishes density map
  • Over a third of prostate cancer cases aren’t diagnosed until an advanced stage
  • Study: The Bigger the City, the Longer the Flu Season

How unhealthy is the UK? Figures from the latest NHS survey

December 2018 - A survey published by NHS Digital has indicated that the majority of adults in the UK could be making themselves more prone to health problems with the unhealthy lifestyles they lead. 90% of adults from the total of 7,997 who were interviewed were found to have at least one unhealthy trait. These traits were categorised as drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week, eating fewer than five portions of vegetables per day, being obese and inactivity.

Almost a third of men and women had two or more unhealthy traits. The most prevalent combination of these amongst men was drinking more than 14 units of alcohol and consuming a low amount of fruit and vegetables. For women, the most common combination was low fruit and vegetable consumption with obesity.

How was the survey conducted?

The Health Survey for England was created to analyse health trends from different age groups, living in households around the country. The survey involved an interview followed by a visit from a nurse to take some samples. It contained a number of core questions, and recorded measurements and various samples such as height and weight, blood and saliva and blood pressure.

Overweight and Obesity

It found that 64% of adults in the UK were either overweight or obese. Men were more likely to be overweight, but women were more likely to be obese. The survey also analysed the link between parents and children for the first time, and it found that 28% of children also had a mother who was obese, and 24% had a father who was obese. Furthermore, nearly half of parents (49.5%) of children who were obese thought that their child was the right weight. The survey also reported that only 29% of adults claimed to eat more than five portions of vegetables a day.

Smoking

Since 1993, smoking among adults has declined from 27% to 17%. During this same period of time, the percentage of adults that have never smoked cigarettes regularly has increased from 46% to 57%. The statistics on the amount of children who smoke have also improved: the percentage of children between the ages of 8 and 15 who have never smoked a cigarette has decreased from 19% in 1997, to 5% in 2017 .

Alcohol consumption

It was also found that the percentage of men and women drinking more than 14 units each week had decreased. Between 2011-2017 in men, the change was 34% to 28%; and in women, 18% to 14%. The average amount of alcohol reportedly drunk from both the statistics of men and women was 11.8 units.

Were there any other positive outcomes from the survey?

Although many adults in this survey have admitted to having one or more of these risk factors which can increase the chance of developing diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, it showed some trends moving in the right direction. In addition to the adult alcohol and smoking figures discussed above, there was a dramatic drop in the proportion of children (aged 8-15) who had reportedly never had an alcoholic drink: 45% in 2003 to 14% in 2017.  

However, the statistics on obesity remain alarming, especially given that so many conditions related to diet can result from it. If parents do not start to recognise obesity in their own children, then it is difficult to see how these figures will improve.

Improving your health through lifestyle changes

There are several things you can do to address the unhealthy traits discussed:

  • You should aim to do about 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise each week to prevent associated problems from weight gain and obesity.
  • It can also help to examine food labels to make sure what you are eating falls within guidelines of recommended nutritional information.
  • Alcohol consumption should also be limited to under 14 units each week
  • If you smoke, stopping can help to lower the risk of heart disease and cancer.

If you are concerned about your own habits and how they may be affecting your health or putting you at risk of illness, speak to your doctor at your GP surgery who will be able to offer advice.

Lupus Awareness: Nearly Half of All Cases Initially Misdiagnosed

October 2018 - October is Lupus Awareness Month and, taking a look at the results of a recent online survey carried out by Lupus UK, there is still much to do to raise awareness of the condition.

Lupus UK is the national charity for the chronic condition and offers support and advice to those affected by it. The charity has carried out an online survey which has revealed that a large portion (64.7%) of Lupus UK supporters had not heard of the disease before a family member or friend received a diagnosis.

The results also indicated that it takes on average 6.4 years from the onset of symptoms for a diagnosis to be given. And close to half (46.9%) of all those with lupus were initially given a misdiagnosis; with a plethora of different conditions being among those initially diagnosed.

Lupus: an introduction

Lupus is the more frequently used name for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The multisystem, autoimmune condition can cause extreme fatigue, muscle and joint pain and skin reactions to UV exposure; although symptoms can vary greatly depending on the patient. For some, the condition can be serious and lead to heart, lung or kidney problems. (You can read more about the symptoms on our What is Lupus? page.)

The exact cause of lupus is unknown. Lupus can affect people of all backgrounds. However, women between the age of 15-45 and people from certain ethnic backgrounds, including African-Caribbean and South Asian, are more likely to develop the condition. It is still unclear why these specific groups may be more prone to the disease.

Lupus is an often misunderstood and complex condition which can lead to extremely serious and debilitating health problems. Not everyone with lupus will experience severe symptoms. The nature of lupus means that those diagnosed might go through periods where the condition is active and periods of remission. This means that symptoms are not always apparent.

The condition is usually managed through a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

Why is more awareness needed?

Common misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about lupus are thought to contribute to the delays experienced by some patients in receiving a diagnosis.

Lupus can be difficult to diagnose due to its wide ranging symptoms and the lack of a single definitive test. Patients who feel that they have long-standing or unexplained symptoms should see their GP.

Chris Maker, CEO of Lupus UK, explained the importance of Lupus Awareness Month:

‘The diagnosis and treatment of patients with lupus in the UK has often been inconsistent, with those seeking a diagnosis often facing delays of several years and experiencing uncertainty about their treatment.’

‘We hope better awareness of the condition will reduce the current diagnosis times and result in earlier access to appropriate treatment, reducing flares and, ultimately, giving a better quality of life for patients.’

Throughout the month of October Lupus UK wants to broaden awareness of the condition amongst the general public and healthcare professionals.

Head over to Lupus UK for expert advice on the condition and how you can get involved with Lupus Awareness Month.

'Meat Tax' Could Save Thousands of Lives Per Year, Scientists Say

October 2018 - Researchers at the University of Oxford have published a new study, which examines the potential health and financial impact of introducing taxes on processed and red meat. It suggested that in the UK, such a levy could help to prevent almost 6,000 deaths annually, and reduce health spending by £700m.

Unsurprisingly, the results of the study have sparked quite a lively debate between government ministers, economists, health experts and environmentalists.

What would the tax involve?

The study calculated optimal taxation rates in different regions all over the world. In the UK, these rates were:

  • 14% tax on red meat (such as steak and lamb)
  • and 79% tax on processed meat (such as bacon and sausages).

So, to give an example in numerical terms, a 225g steak from Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range, which currently costs £3.50 would rise to £3.99; and a pack of eight back bacon rashers from Waitrose would rise from £3.49 to £6.24.

The tax would not apply to white meat (such as chicken or turkey) and fish.

The optimal taxes elsewhere suggested by the study were much higher. In the US for example, the hypothetical levy would be 163% on processed foods and 34% on red meat.

The authors of the study estimated that, in some countries, the tax could curb processed meat intake by two portions per person, per week.

What would be the benefits of the tax?

The authors suggest that the tax could reduce the likelihood of many people developing cancer, suggesting that it could save almost 6,000 lives per year in the UK alone. They also said that costs to the health service would fall by in excess of £700m. In turn, reduced levels of sickness would lead to a healthier workforce and a stronger economy.

Because red meat is generally more intensive than white meat to farm, using more land and water, and generating higher levels of carbon, it’s also thought that the tax would be beneficial for the environment; reducing carbon emissions and facilitating more green space.

What’s the problem with eating too much red or processed meat?

In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) categorised processed meat as a group one carcinogen (or cause of cancer). In basic terms, group one carcinogens are substances which are known or strongly suspected to cause cancer in humans, such as alcohol and smoking. This doesn’t mean that processed meat is as bad for you as smoking, but rather that there is compelling evidence that processed meat increases cancer risk (as smoking does).

Red meat was categorised as a group 2A carcinogen. This means that ‘limited’ evidence suggests a probable link between red meat and cancer, but that other factors in studies relating to this association could not be entirely dismissed.

The clearest link between red or processed and meat and cancer risk is with bowel cancer specifically.

What are the arguments against it?

Some have criticised the idea, suggesting that it would amount to the government intervening too much in individual lifestyles, and essentially prescribing a diet for consumers to follow.

A spokesperson for the Institute for Economic Affairs described the issue as a ‘nanny state’ battleground, and said that such a tax would increase the cost of living (and in turn, disproportionately affect those on low incomes).

And in a response to a question on whether we should be eating less beef due to the impact on the climate, government minister Claire Perry commented that the state shouldn’t be in the business of telling people how to run their diets.

On the other hand, Marco Springmann who worked on the research stated that current levels of consumption are creating a burden on healthcare provision and public funds, which are ultimately footed by the taxpayer.

Has anything similar to this been implemented before?

Yes. Earlier this year, a ‘sugar tax’ was introduced on soft drinks. In the run up to its implementation, there was quite a similar debate, regarding the impact it would have on consumption and cost of living.

It’s perhaps too early to say whether it has been successful in getting people to consume fewer sugary soft drinks. But a positive outcome has been that many drinks manufacturers have reduced sugar levels in their product lines, so that they don’t have to pay the tax; and with fewer unhealthy options available, this is likely to benefit consumers as a whole.

Could a meat tax happen in the UK?

Given that a sugar tax was introduced earlier this year, it’s certainly possible. It doesn’t look likely to be introduced in the immediate short-term future. However, due to the link between cancer and processed meat, and the impact on the climate, some experts have said that a meat tax is inevitable.

Chatham House researcher Rob Bailey said it would be ‘hard to imagine’ the tax not being introduced in the next ten years.

How much red or processed meat is too much?

Red meat is a helpful source of iron, vitamin B12 and other minerals; so if you eat meat, it can be beneficial from a health perspective to have a small amount of red meat in your diet.

But in addition to the health risks discussed above, red meat does tend to be fattier than white meat, and processed meat even more so; so it’s a good idea to keep intake within sensible limits.

The Department of Health recommends cutting down to 70g per day if you eat 90g or more.

Some other measures to consider if you feel as though you might be eating too much red or processed meat are to:

  • swap it out for fish or chicken where possible;
  • have smaller portions of meat and instead include more vegetables, whole grains or pulses with your meal instead;
  • use chicken or vegetarian alternatives to bacon and sausages.

If you need help or advice cutting down on red meat, speak to your doctor, or take a look at the NHS Eatwell Guide.

National Diabetes Audit 2016-17: What does it tell us?

March 2018 - Overseen by NHS Digital, the National Diabetes Audit is used to assess the efficacy of diabetes care in England, Wales and the Isle of Man. The full report for 2016/17 was published on 14th March 2018.

The audit analyses information provided by 95.3 percent of primary care providers, and specifically looks to answer five key questions:

  1. Are all patients recorded on a practice diabetes register?
  2. What percentage of patients received the key processes of diabetes care as outlined by NICE?
  3. What percentage of patients achieved targets for glucose control, blood pressure and blood cholesterol?
  4. What percentage of patients are offered and attend a structured education course?
  5. What are the rates of acute and long term complications (disease outcomes) for diabetes patients?

Diabetes is on the rise

Since 1996, 2.1 million people have received a diabetes diagnosis, taking the number of people living with the condition to approximately 3.5 million.

So, why are diabetes rates increasing? And why is it a problem?

Dr Bob Young, clinical lead for the National Diabetes Audit, spoke to The Diabetes Times about the most recent audit, ‘the problem is in our overfed and sedentary society’ he explained, ‘we’re pushing down the age of diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. So people who are going to get type 2 diabetes, will probably get it, but what this data shows is if you get type 2 diabetes in your sixties, the health impact is much less than if you get it when you’re younger[...]’

The NDA findings

The audit highlights several important points about the different groups of people living with various types of diabetes. People in two groups in particular - young people and those also diagnosed with a severe mental illness (SMI) - were found to be less likely to be accessing the level of care set out by NICE guidelines.

The NDA reports:

  • People of working age and younger are almost half as likely to achieve treatment targets as their older counterparts.
  • Young people less frequently complete care processes and are most likely to face negative outcomes than those diagnosed later in life.
  • Those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to also be diagnosed with a severe mental illness (SMI) than those with type 1 diabetes or the general population.
  • Those living with diabetes and SMI are also more likely to experience higher levels of social deprivation, and are also more likely to be from ethnic minorities.

Why is the NDA important?

The NDA supplies primary care providers with comparable information which can drive measurable improvements to the services currently being offered; generating key recommendations for care providers

These recommendations recognise the need for improvements in engagement with young people. The report suggests that GP practices and specialist services, ‘seek new approaches to improving management for those overall doing worst,’ in particular with ‘people of working age and younger.’

However, the key recommendations do not mention specific actionable factors for those living with SMI or from an ethnic minority background.

You can read the full report here.

Which town has the most fast food outlets? PHE publishes density map

June 2018 - Public Health England has released a data map revealing the density of fast food outlets in different areas of the country.

The research used data from the Food Standards Agency. In this instance, the term ‘fast food’ refers to rapidly available energy-dense food; so the range of outlets mentioned includes (but is not limited to) pizza outlets, kebab shops, burger bars, chicken shops and fish and chip shops.

However, the data may not provide a full picture as some multi-functional outlets offering fast food options may be classed as restaurants or cafes, and not included in the data set.

Which areas were the densest fast food outlets?

The top five local authority areas that have the highest number of fast food outlets per 100,000 population were as follows:

  • Blackpool
  • Knowsley
  • Kingston upon Hull
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester

Looking at the map, there does appear to be a disparity between the North and South of England; there are more Northern local authorities with high densities than there are Southern.

Is there a link to deprivation?

The results of the fast food outlet data have been compared to the 2015 report ‘The English Indices of Deprivation’. The statistics show that areas that are more deprived are more likely to have a higher number of fast food outlets.

Of the top five districts with the highest density of fast food outlets, four were also in the top 10 percent in England for having the highest number of deprived neighbourhoods.

What is being done about the obesity ‘crisis’?

According to the supporting report, obesity is costing local authorities an estimated £352 million per year. Therefore tackling obesity and encouraging healthier lifestyles could have a real impact on the availability and distribution of public funds.

PHE believes that our local environment can have a significant impact on our behaviour, including our diet. Children in particular might be more likely to make poor food choices when bombarded by tempting yet unhealthy foods.

So, local authorities are taking action. New initiatives are being developed at council level, in conjunction with PHE, to restrict fast food outlets from opening in areas with a high concentration of them, as well in areas where children gather (such as near schools, parks or playgrounds).

PHE points out that it has previously provided help to small businesses to make healthy improvements through their ‘toolkits’. By providing practical information for small businesses, PHE hopes that they can learn to reduce their salt, fat and sugar content and aim for a healthier menu.  

Is all fast food bad for us?

We tend to associate fast food with calorie-dense items that are high in salt and saturated fat, such as burgers, chips, pizzas, fried chicken and so on. However, fast food doesn’t have to be unhealthy.

Some high street fast food chains have developed their menu ranges to include healthier options. The majority of popular food chains now also publish their nutritional information, so that consumers can make an informed choice. PHE has also challenged the larger brands in fast food to reduce their calorie content per serving by one fifth in the next decade (which, as you may have read here, KFC recently pledged to do).

We’ve written before that, generally, it’s better to eat out less and prepare food at home wherever you can. In your own kitchen, you can exercise much more control over the amount of salt and fat that goes into what you (and your family) are eating. For the most part, cooking at home is also cheaper, even if it isn’t always as convenient.

There are undoubtedly a range of factors at play in the data we’ve discussed above. But it’s arguably evident that for many low income families, cooking at home might not always be as straightforward due to time constraints, or not having the practical means. This is perhaps why a multilateral approach, involving local government but also including action from larger fast-food providers, is so crucial.

You can read more about the report here.

Over a third of prostate cancer cases aren’t diagnosed until an advanced stage

April 2018 - A report published by male cancer charity Orchid has revealed that 37% of prostate cancers are only being detected in advanced stages, with almost a quarter of these cases being diagnosed in A&E.

Orchid says that these revelations demonstrate “the worrying current and future trends in prostate cancer, associated with an ageing population”. They believe that in a decade’s time it will be the most prevalent cancer in the UK, and projected incidence rates are expected to rise by 12% by 2035.

How common is prostate cancer?

Around 47,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year, making it the most common cancer amongst males. Figures published in 2015 show that more men are now dying of prostate cancer than women from breast cancer (around 11,000).

What did the report say?

The report, published in advance of Male Cancer Awareness Week (9-15 April), was developed in collaboration with NHS England and the National Prostate Cancer Audit, as well as other leading experts in prostate cancer research.

It highlighted the lack of a unified process for diagnostics, due to the doubt surrounding the effectiveness of PSA tests, which measure the amount of Prostate Specific Antigen in the blood. In fact, 42% of prostate cancer patients saw their GP twice before they were referred, according to the report. Furthermore, there were issues raised about the discrepancies in patient care, such as GPs lacking guidance and a shortage of nurses to provide support.

The Chief Executive of Orchid, Rebecca Porta, said: “we are facing a potential crisis in terms of diagnostics, treatment and patient care. Urgent action needs to be taken now if we are to be in a position to deliver world class outcomes for prostate cancer patients and their families in the future”.

However, the report did also point out that there have been some major advances in surgical treatments for latter-stage prostate cancer.

What is the prostate?

The prostate gland is located below the bladder and produces the fluid found in semen. Problems with the prostate usually occur in middle-aged men as the prostate enlarges which can disrupt the flow of urine in the urethra.

Prostate cancer is caused by DNA changes which affect cell production. These changes can cause cells to be overproduced, or to live for too long and mutate.

Who is most at risk?

Unlike other forms of cancer, there are relatively few risk factors associated with it. The only known factors are age and a history of the disease in the family. Males of Afro-Caribbean descent are also more likely to develop the condition than Caucasian males, but the reasons for this are unknown.

Prostate cancer may not cause any obvious symptoms until the cancer has swelled to a large enough degree that it puts pressure on the urethra, which is what causes urinary problems. At this stage, symptoms may include:

  • the need to urinate more frequently especially during the night,
  • weak or interrupted urine flow
  • or blood in the urine (this is much less common).

However, these symptoms can also be caused by benign prostate enlargement.

When should I see my doctor?

If you’ve noticed any of the above symptoms or have any concerns about prostate cancer, you should speak to your doctor. They will be able to conduct tests or refer you to a specialist where required.

Presently, there is not a screening programme in place for prostate cancer in the UK; but this may change in the future as and when diagnostic tools become more advanced.

Study: The Bigger the City, the Longer the Flu Season

October 2018 - Influenza has puzzled scientists and healthcare professionals for many years. The unpredictability of the virus makes it an aspect of public health that is difficult to understand and, consequently, tame.

Each year aspects of the virus change, for example:

  • when the flu season commences;
  • its reach within the general population;
  • and its duration.

However the results of a recent study suggest that the size of the city where you live may have an impact on the length of flu season you have to endure.

What did the study look at?

The study, published in Science, looked at the number of instances of influenza-like illnesses from medical claims data between 2002-2008.

Smaller cities were found to experience shorter, yet more intense spikes in flu cases. Larger and more densely populated cities were found to experience flu seasons that were spread out over a longer period of time.

What do the results mean?

If you live in a highly populated location, the climatic conditions are shown to have less of an impact on the potential spread of the virus. This is because the virus does not need to rely on low humidity in order to survive in moisture droplets in the air, before it infects a new host.

Lead author, Benjamin Dalziel explains: ‘If there [are] lots of people and transportation patterns frequently bring them together, it helps the virus find new hosts even when climate conditions aren’t at their most favorable.’

This means that big cities provide conditions that allow the virus to continue to spread even when the climate is not ideal. Large numbers of commuters are placed in close proximity with one another on a regular basis providing ample opportunity for the virus to spread.

What does this mean for where I live?

Obviously the results of this particular study are not intended to prompt people to move out of the city; but it is hoped that the findings may prompt public health officials to make more preparations for influenza season.

Big cities may need to reassess what precautions they have in place to try and keep the flu virus from spreading; whereas smaller cities may need to reassess how well they are prepared for intense spikes in flu cases.

Surveillance of flu patterns in large cities could potentially be used to help predict the overall population reach.

How can I prevent flu?

The study does not go as far to indicate the ‘best’ size city in order to minimise the spread of flu. Ideally, no matter where you live you should still try and follow good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of infection.

Prevention advice remains the same regardless of where you live. You can find out more about preventing flu by reading our article on flu precautions and lifestyle tips.

One of the best ways of preventing the flu virus is with the influenza vaccination, although it is not 100% effective. The NHS provides free flu jabs to certain at-risk groups including:

  • those aged over 65;
  • women who are pregnant
  • and those living with certain underlying health conditions.

However, if you do not fall into one of these categories you can still purchase a flu vaccine at various pharmacies throughout the country. We’ve previously created a guide to the flu vaccination which should tell you most of what you need to know. If you aren’t sure whether you are eligible for the flu jab, contact your GP surgery.