More than a third of middle-aged adults have multiple health problems, in a crisis fuelled by obesity in childhood, research shows.
Researchers at University College London (UCL) tracked almost 8,000 “Generation X” adults since they were born and found 34 per cent of people aged 46 to 48 have two or more long-term health conditions.
The research found those who were overweight by the age of 10 were more likely to fare worse in middle age.
Lower birthweight, and emotional problems in adolescence also increased the chance of multiple chronic health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and back pain, in middle age.
The new observational study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, tracked those born in 1970 since birth.
Many of the factors influencing later health related to weight gain – especially in childhood.
The research is the first major study to track such impact over lifetimes.
Those who were overweight by the age of 10 were 25 per cent more likely to suffer the combination of diabetes and high blood pressure by midlife.
And every one point decrease in Body Mass Index (BMI) by the age of 10 was linked to a three per cent fall in the risk of midlife health problems.
The UK has one of the worst records for obesity in Western Europe.
Two in three adults are overweight or obese, with one in three children reaching this stage by the time they leave primary school, and rates of adult obesity doubling since the early 1990s.
Last week The Telegraph revealed radical Government anti-obesity plans, which will see a national rewards programme for those who buy healthier foods and increase exercise levels.
A decline in healthy lifestyles
While the findings were not directly compared with previous generations, researchers said it suggested a decline in healthy lifestyles.
Dr Dawid Gondek from UCL, and lead author on the study, 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.”
A previous major study on 1.7 million people in 2007 aged 45 to 64 – a group which included a higher proportion of older people – put the figure for people suffering multiple health problems at 30 per cent.
Dr Gondek added: “Compared to previous generations, it appears that the health of British adults in midlife is on the decline."
Fellow researcher Professor George Ploubidis 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.”
Pressure on the NHS
He said tackling such problems early could improve the health of future generations, and alleviate future pressures on the NHS.
Lower birthweight, higher BMI and lower cognitive ability at age 10, and worse emotional and conduct issues at age 16, were all linked with increased risk of having multiple chronic health problems in middle age.
The researchers analysed data from 7,951 adults taking part in a British Cohort Study from when they were born.
At 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 of people engaged in high-risk drinking, more than one in five reporting recurrent back issues, and just under a fifth experienced mental health problems.
One in six had high blood pressure, more than one in 10 were suffering from asthma or bronchitis, one in 13 had arthritis and one in 20 had diabetes in midlife.
The study found that those who grew up in poorer families were 43 per cent 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.