Dying to scare the life out of us

Life expectancy has shot up in recent years. Why are public-health miserabilists insisting it will soon start falling?

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

‘For Wales, the potential impact of non-communicable diseases threatens to restrain or even result in a fall in life expectancy. Powerful historical and cultural factors leave Wales at greater risk of this outcome. Indicators such as smoking, alcohol, obesity and sedentary lifestyles are adverse and unless addressed head on we may see our life-expectancy gains slow and even reverse.’

This is the gloomy prognosis of Dr Tony Jewell, the chief medical officer for Wales, in his latest annual report. Having conquered the majority of serious infectious diseases over the past century or so, are we in danger of blowing all the good work as our children and grandchildren fall foul of the ‘obesity timebomb’ or drink and smoke themselves into an early grave?

Jewell is not alone in fretting about such an outcome. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has repeatedly suggested that life expectancy could decline in the future. In his Ministry of Food Manifesto, for example, he declares: ‘Diet and health are massive social issues. Obesity already costs the NHS more than smoking: £4.2 billion vs £2.7 billion. Over 9,000 people already die prematurely each year due to health conditions caused by being overweight: cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes are the most common. This will be the first generation in which children are predicted to die before their parents.’

The premise of what obesity will do to our children is also the premise of the little-lamented BBC3 show Honey, We’re Killing the Kids. Presenter Kris Murrin used computer graphics to show how children would turn out if their feckless parents carried on feeding them with junk. Essentially, little Johnny or Mary would grow up to be a diabetic, obese, spotty loser who could look forward to a life of depression and disease. The only saving grace of this existence would be that the Grim Reaper would come along nice and early to put them out of their misery. Once parents on the show had been reduced to a big blubby pool of tears, Murrin would direct them as to the appropriate way to feed their children, before – miraculously – the computer would churn out a new, happier forecast. Smiles all round, grateful parents duly chastised. It is a sign of the times that Murrin moved on from BBC3 to become an adviser to UK prime minister David Cameron.

All this talk of a generation with shortened life expectancy is deeply depressing. Such an outcome would put the UK in the same exalted company as the former Soviet bloc and Sub-Saharan Africa as places in the world that have, in recent times, suffered significant reverses in life expectancy. After the collapse of Stalinism, millions of people were suddenly impoverished, turning to large quantities of alcohol and tobacco to find solace in circumstances where there was little optimism for the future, or finding themselves victim of the increase in violent deaths. Economic meltdown is certainly a disaster for one’s health. But even the gloomiest picture of Britain’s future is a long way from the disintegration that occurred in Eastern Europe in the early Nineties.

As for Africa, Jewell notes: ‘In sub-Saharan countries, such as Lesotho, life expectancy has also decreased but as a consequence of exposure of a whole population to HIV/AIDS. The impact of HIV/AIDS in Lesotho is such that the life expectancy of 46 years in 2009 has dropped by 13 years since 1990.’ This is heartbreaking stuff.

Then Jewell adds: ‘We cannot be complacent.’ Huh? He is seriously comparing Welsh lifestyles to the effect of a new infectious disease on a population who were already poor, were already exposed to a variety of other infectious diseases like malaria, and had little or no access to decent medical care. This devastating triple-whammy is being compared to, er, being a bit chubby, having a fag and drinking a bit more than is recommended. On such comparisons is the world of public health built today.

In fact, Jewell’s report should be a good-news story. As he himself notes: ‘I am pleased to report that the health of the people of Wales, measured by life expectancy, continues to rise. Life expectancy at birth in Wales was 77.2 years for males and 81.6 years for females. This is an increase of 0.2 years over the figures for 2006-08 for both men and women… In Wales, the
overall life expectancy has risen since 1991-93 by 3.9 years for males and 2.7 years for females.’ Such is the difference between birth rates and death rates that the population of Wales is now above three million people for the first time.

Things could still be better, of course. Health in Wales – which is relatively poorer than other parts of the UK – still lags behind other areas of the country. But a far more serious (though in many ways equally overblown) problem for the UK is not declining life expectancy but the problems of financing rising life expectancy. Retirement at age 65 will soon be a thing of the past as we work longer before drawing our pensions. But the fact that we will mostly be sprightly enough to do so – and still look forward to a decade of life ahead to put our feet up once our working days are done – is cause for celebration, surely?

These panics about declining life expectancy have no basis in reality. They seem designed purely to justify the existence of health campaigners and quangocrats and their relentless busybody interference in our lives. As the old joke goes, if they got their way and took away all our unhealthy pleasures, we might not live longer but it would certainly feel longer.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) He will be speaking at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival on Thursday 20 October at 7.30pm. Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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