Old before their time: Britons now ageing quicker than their parents

Poor diet and lack of exercise blamed for increase in obesity, blood pressure and diabetes

We are living longer yet growing less healthy. That is the paradoxical conclusion reached by researchers who have found successive generations building up medical problems worse than those faced by their forbears.

Life expectancy has grown dramatically in recent decades as a result of improved nutrition, housing and medical care. But today's 40-year-olds are experiencing problems of excess weight, high blood pressure and diabetes similar to those now in their mid-fifties.

The younger generation is thus 15 years ahead of the older generation on the pathway to increasing frailty, disability and ill health. Ultimately, the effect is likely to be a slowing of the increase in life expectancy or even a reversal, experts say.

For more than a decade doctors have warned that our existing way of life is killing us softly, due to an excess of fat, sugar and salt – and sloth. Two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese and, on present trends, that will rise to 90 per cent by 2050.

Obesity already causes an estimated 9,000 premature deaths a year, and doctors fear its relentless rise could mean the current generation will be the first to die before their parents.

Researchers who followed 6,000 individuals for up to 16 years have charted the consequences of that indolent, calorie-rich lifestyle and found the adults of today are less "metabolically" healthy than in the past.

"The more recently born generations are doing worse than their predecessors," they say, adding: "The prevalence of metabolic risk factors and the lifelong exposure to them have increased and probably will continue to increase."

The study was conducted in the town of Doetinchem in the Netherlands beginning in 1987. The researchers compared the health of those in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties and then followed up each group to find out how one generation compared with another born a decade earlier.

At the start of the study, 40 per cent of men in their thirties were overweight. But 11 years later, the proportion had grown to 52 per cent among the next generation of men in their thirties. Among women, their weight did not change until the most recent generations when the proportion who were obese doubled in a decade. These "generation shifts" were also seen in high blood pressure, with the prevalence of the condition increasing in each generation for both men and women. The only exceptions were the two most recent generations of men. A similar increase was seen in diabetes in succeeding generations of men, though not of women.

There was no generation shift in high cholesterol, but levels of "good" HDL cholesterol did rise in the oldest two generations. Gerben Hulsegge, of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health, who led the study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, said the impact of obesity in youth was a critical factor.

"The prevalence of obesity in our youngest generation of men and women at the age of 40 is similar to that of our oldest generation at the age of 55. This means that the younger generation is 15 years ahead of the older generation and will be exposed to their obesity for a longer time."

As smoking has declined in recent decades, there is also likely to be a shift from smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.

Dr Hulsegge said: "The decrease in smoking and improved healthcare are important driving forces behind greater life expectancy of younger generations. But it is also possible in the distant future, as a result of current trends in obesity, that the rate of increase in life expectancy may well slow down."

Lifestyle illnesses: The three big killers

Diabetes

Since 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled from 1.4 million to 2.9 million. By 2025 it is estimated that five million people will have diabetes. The illness increases the risk of heart failure, kidney failure, and death – and is one of the biggest health challenges facing the UK.

In the study, the prevalence of diabetes increased in each succeeding generation of men though not of women.

Blood pressure

It is one of the most important causes of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease and controlling it is one of the most effective ways of preventing premature death. High blood pressure affects an estimated 12 million people in the UK, one in four of the adult population and one in two of those over 60. In the study, the prevalence of high blood pressure increased in each generation of men and women, except for the two most recent generations of men.

Weight

Being overweight or obese increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and a range of other conditions. Two-thirds of people in the UK are overweight or obese and obesity is estimated to cause 9,000 premature deaths a year.

At the start of the study, 40 per cent of men in their thirties were overweight. A decade later, the proportion of men overweight in the next generation of men in their thirties had risen to 52 per cent.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: We are currently looking for a Geog...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee