Obesity crisis threatens to increase strokes and heart disease, reversing a 50-year downward trend

Study shows UK has highest levels of obesity across Europe and beyond

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 28 November 2017 00:57 GMT
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Obesity in wealthier nations is already resulting in a plateau in the long-term decreases i nCVD deaths
Obesity in wealthier nations is already resulting in a plateau in the long-term decreases i nCVD deaths

Deaths from heart disease and strokes in the UK are set to rise because of the obesity epidemic, threatening to reverse a downward trend stretching back over the past 50 years, a major report warns today.

British men are the most obese across Europe, the Middle East, Russia and North Africa, the study finds, while only Turkey had a higher proportion of obese women.

The UK also has low levels of physical activity and high levels of drinking, and the paper warns the gains made in tackling heart disease risk being “eroded by the obesity epidemic”.

With child obesity rates also spiralling the report warns the downward trend in heart disease deaths is already levelling off among the younger generation.

The Labour Party told The Independent cuts to public health and education budgets have exacerbated problems and were a sign of the Government's "utter failure" to grasp the severity of the public health crisis.

UK deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD) more than halved in a generation driven significantly by reductions in harmful lifestyle habits, like smoking.

While CVD still claims around four million lives across Europe each year, in the UK it has been overtaken by cancer as the number one killer.

The Cardiovascular Disease Statistics 2017 report, published in the European Heart Journal today, found:

  • Britain is the most obese nation, with 26.9 per cent of men reported as clinically obese, and 29.2 per cent of women;
  • The UK ranks tenth for binge drinking, with 27.1 per cent of reporting drinking heavily in the last 30 days, out of 47 countries;
  • Forty per cent of adults are insufficiently active, the third highest out of 36 countries who reported data;
  • And, despite its obesity levels the UK is in the bottom quarter of countries when it comes to vegetable consumption, eating less than a third of 311kgs consumed each year by the average Armenian.

But Britain also has some of the lowest rates of smoking and high blood pressure of all the countries in the report.

While the UK ranks alongside Ireland for the proportion of the population with clinically high levels of cholesterol, since 2014 the NHS has been widely prescribing cholesterol-lowering statins to older patients to reduce these deaths further.

These trends have driven major declines in the number of people dying from a heart attack or stroke.

But the report adds: “The erosion of these health gains by the obesity epidemic and Type 2 diabetes, however, is a tragedy waiting to happen and already there are concerns about plateauing of cardiovascular mortality rates in younger adults.”

The UK performs better than most countries in this report on the prevalence of diabetes, it affects 3.9 per cent of people against an average of 5.8 per cent in other high income countries.

Despite this, diabetes already costs the NHS around £1m an hour, about one tenth of its total annual budget, and public health officials have warned it will bankrupt the NHS if the trend continues.

Ninety per cent of UK diabetics have Type 2 diabetes, which is caused by obesity and poor diet and can be sent into remission by losing weight.

This is the area where obesity can undo improvements in heart health, according to lead author Dr Adam Timmis from Barts Heart Centre, Queen Mary University of London.

He said: “Heart disease still remains the leading cause of death for middle income countries, while declines in high-income countries mean that cancer deaths have now become more common there.

"But this downward trend for high-income countries is being threatened by the emerging obesity epidemic that is seeing rates of diabetes increase almost everywhere."

Being overweight damages the heart's function as well.

Chair of the National Obesity Forum chair Tam Fry said the UK will not maintain its improvements without tackling "the real killer" in this research.

"To have over 5% higher obesity levels than any other European country is truly appalling and the researchers are correct in fearing worse statistics in the years to come".

"Increased levels of cholesterol, drinking and sedentary lifestyle will see to that," he warned.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said the findings were a powerful reminder that CVD remains a "huge killer" in the UK, and a killer of women in particular despite "too often being perceived as a 'man's disease'".

“The high prevalence of adult obesity in the UK is particular concerning as, thanks to BHF research, we now know that being overweight or leads to damaging changes in the heart’s structure," Dr Samani said.

Jonatan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said Labour would protect public health spending where his predecessor has failed

He told The Independent: “The escalating obesity crisis is one of the most urgent public health challenges facing our country.

“However, this Government’s devastating cuts to public health and education budgets, alongside their watered down obesity strategy, demonstrates their utter failure to grasp the gravity of this situation."

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