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British women are living shorter lives on average than most of their counterparts in Europe, according to an analysis by Public Health England.

Spanish women have the highest life expectancy in Europe at birth, at 86.3 years in 2016. The average for the UK is 83, taking 17th place out of 28 EU nations. Men in the UK do better, in 10th place and with above-average life expectancy of 79.4, but men in Italy, the leading nation, can expect to live to 81.

The data, from Eurostat, is for the UK as a whole rather than its constituent countries, but is being published by PHE as part of its annual Health Profile for England. Data from the Global Burden of Disease study on premature death shows a similar picture.

“We are in the middle of the pack and we would like to be at the top. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be as healthy as anywhere in Europe,” said Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE.

“It is certainly of concern that we have worse outcomes than other European countries,” he added. “We tend to do badly in men with respiratory disease and in British women with cancer, especially breast cancer. It is a sign of the numbers developing disease.”

Many of the causes of chronic, long-term diseases in the UK which shorten lives are preventable. Obesity is causing a big surge in the numbers of people developing type 2 diabetes. The report shows the numbers with diabetes are expected to rise swiftly, from just under four million last year to nearly five million in 2035. Along with alcohol, obesity is also one of the factors behind the rise in breast cancer. Apart from the human cost, the bill for the NHS will be huge.

Most of the strategies to reduce obesity are aimed at children. “In many ways it is easier to intervene,” said Newton. “We have a duty of care for children. But it is equally important that adults are enabled to eat a better diet.”

There is strong policy support for childhood obesity programmes, he said, such as the sugary drinks tax, curbs on advertising junk food to children and pressuring food companies to cut the sugar, salt and calories in their products. There is little directed specifically at adults. However, said Newton, “nearly all of the measures will also improve adult obesity. Effectively we are taking calories out of the national diet,” he said.

The report also shows that healthy life expectancy – the number of years people live before they begin to suffer from illnesses – has not much changed in recent years. British women in 2014-16 were spending nearly 20 years of their life in poor health (19.3 years), while men spent just over 16 years in poor health, according to data from the Office for National Statistics included in the report.

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