Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Healthier lifestyles 'may add more years of bad health'

Life expectancy is used as a public health target by NHS trusts

Attempts to encourage healthier lifestyles risk just adding extra years of poor health to life, experts say.

The independent panel, commissioned by the government, said there needed to be more of a focus on ensuring extra years were lived in good health.

The experts, including an ex-government policy chief and directors of public health, also said more assertiveness was needed in the public health push.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said he would consider the findings.

The experts produced three reports after being asked to look into the government's approach in England to public health by Mr Burnham's predecessor, Alan Johnson.


It comes amid rising rates of obesity and drink-related disease and death, as well as the continuing struggle to encourage people to do the recommended levels of exercise.

The experts said progress was being made, but warned much more needed to be done.

They said it was important to get the tone right and urged the government not to be "too paternalistic".

One of the reports suggested the key to this was to be positive about what can be achieved, rather than stressing the negatives of continuing with an unhealthy lifestyle.

The experts also said GPs were in an ideal position to push the agenda, but were still not doing enough to encourage people to change their behaviour, such as joining stop-smoking clinics.

They are quite right to pick up on life expectancy, which after all is used as a target by trusts
Alan Maryon Davis, Faculty of Public Health

They also said there should be a new emphasis on what was trying to be achieved, pointing out that many public health interventions focused on extending life expectancy without necessarily ensuring it was lived in good health.

To give an example, one report cited guidance from NICE, the NHS advisory body.

Its rulings on drugs - many of which just add a few extra months on life - are mandatory and have to be enacted within three months.

However, its advice on encouraging physical activity - which has the potential to have a far greater impact - was voluntary, the report pointed out.

Professor Alan Maryon Davis, the president of the Faculty of Public Health, said the suggestions could help "reshape" the agenda for the better.

"They are quite right to pick up on life expectancy, which after all is used as a target by trusts. If we can be a little cleverer here it could make a difference."

Mr Burnham said there was plenty to be proud of.

He said the government was the first to appoint a specific public health minister in 1997 and since then there had been signs of improvement.

But he added: "It is time to look at this afresh."

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