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More than a third of adults have multiple health problems in midlife – UK study

By Jane Kirby
More than a third of adults have multiple health problems in midlife and the trend is getting worse, new UK research suggests.

A study found that 34% of people aged 46 to 48 have two or more long-term health conditions, of which at least one relates to physical health.

Issues include chronic back problems, mental ill-health, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and high-risk drinking.

The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, found that those who grew up in poorer families (defined by the father being unskilled) were 43% more likely to have multiple long-term health problems in their late 40s than those who were wealthier.

They were also almost 3.5 times more likely to suffer from mental ill-health and arthritis, and had around three times the risk of having poor mental health and high blood pressure.

Experts also found a link between youngsters having issues in childhood, such as being overweight or internalising problems, and chronic health problems in midlife.

Lead author Dr Dawid Gondek, from University College London (UCL), said: “This study provides concerning new evidence about the state of the nation’s health in midlife.

“It shows that a substantial proportion of the population are already suffering from multiple long-term physical and mental health problems in their late 40s, and also points to stark health inequalities which appear to begin early in childhood.”

Professor George Ploubidis, also from UCL, said: “We found that adults from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, those who had been overweight or obese as children and those who had experienced mental ill-health as teenagers were all at increased risk of poor health later on.

“If these links reflect causal effects, policy and practice targeting these core areas in childhood and adolescence may improve the health of future generations and alleviate potential pressures on the NHS.”

The researchers analysed data from 7,951 adults taking part in a British Cohort Study from when they were born.

At age the age of 46 to 48, in 2016-18, they took part in a biomedical survey, where nurses measured their blood pressure and took a blood sample to check for diabetes.

People were also asked about chronic physical health conditions, such as recurrent back problems, asthma, heart problems and arthritis.

Mental health and high-risk drinking were also examined through questionnaires.

The data showed that more than a quarter (26%) of people engaged in high-risk drinking, more than one in five (21%) reporting recurrent back issues, and just under a fifth (19%) were experiencing mental health problems.

One in six (16%) had high blood pressure, more than one in 10 (12%) were suffering from asthma or bronchitis, one in 13 (8%) had arthritis and one in 20 (5%) had diabetes in midlife.

The most common combinations of chronic health conditions included the 4% who had mental ill-health and high blood pressure, 3% who suffered from mental health problems and asthma, 2.5% who had mental ill-health and arthritis and 2% who had diabetes and high blood pressure.

A previous major study on 1.7 million people in 2007 aged 45 to 64 put the figure for people suffering multiple health problems at 30%.

Dr Gondek said: “Compared to previous generations, it appears that the health of British adults in midlife is on the decline.

“With earlier studies finding links between poor health in adulthood and lower life satisfaction, lower earnings and early retirement, public health guidance should focus on helping the population improve their health in midlife so they can age better, stay economically active and continue to lead fulfilling lives.”

Alison Giles, associate director for health at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “The study highlights the urgent need for the UK Government to take all necessary measures to promote environments that support healthy behaviours and to ensure that people with long-term conditions, regardless of their postcode or income, receive the treatment and support they need to continue to do the things that they value.”

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