Could this be ‘the generation that lives less long than the generation above them’? That’s the terrifying prospect floated by Simon Gillespie of UK charity the British Heart Foundation (BHF), discussing a new compilation of statistics about British children’s health. It’s a headline-grabbing statement. It’s also absolute nonsense.
Given such a gloomy statement, the new report itself, Children and Young People Statistics 2013, co-produced by the BHF and the Department of Public Health at Oxford University, in many ways comes as a pleasant surprise. There is much to celebrate about recent trends. For example, when it comes to congenital heart disease, the incidence has fallen and treatment has improved dramatically. And the good news isn’t confined to children. In his foreword, the BHF’s medical director, Professor Peter Weissberg, notes that ‘over the past 50 years there has been a substantial and unprecedented reduction in deaths from cardiovascular disease in the UK’. As has been widely noted, life expectancies have continued to rise in recent years, reaching 79.2 years for men and 83.3 years for women in 2012.
Yet, almost as if to scrabble around looking for something to do, the report focuses on the threats to this good news story. While much has been made of obesity rates as a threat to the health of young people, obesity rates have in fact plateaued or even fallen among children and young people. Yet the report states this through gritted teeth, noting: ‘The past five years of data have not shown such alarming increases in childhood obesity in the UK.’ Well, that’s one way of putting it, I suppose.
As for the question of type-2 diabetes, the statistics only reinforce just how unusual this disease is among children. In England in 2009, we are told, there were just 328 children and young people with type-2 diabetes (where the body produces insulin, but the body fails to respond to it properly, leading to high blood sugar levels) - compared to 20,488 cases of type-1 diabetes (where the body produces little or no insulin). It is true that type-2 was until recently called ‘adult-onset’ diabetes and regarded as almost unheard of in children, but given that doctors are far more alert to the possibility now, it is gratifying to note that it remains rare.
And this can’t be solely put down to problems with diet and exercise. A striking statistic is that among Asian and black children, over eight per cent of diabetes cases are type-2; among white children the proportion is just one per cent. This difference needs to be explained. Making sweeping statements about poor diet and lack of exercise seems misplaced.