Why The Nation Is Failing Its Health MoT – And Why 2018 Is The Time For Change

As an MoT on the nation’s health, it made depressing reading. A huge health survey of adults in England, just published by the NHS, found that 66 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women were overweight or obese while 42 per cent of women and 34 per cent of men were failing to meet the NHS’s recommended exercise levels of 150 minutes a week. Another 30 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women were drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week, the recommended limit.

Meanwhile half of adults regularly take prescription drugs including statins, and high blood pressure pills, and, interestingly, women were more miserable than men for almost their entire lives – a finding attributed to the fact that they are weighed down by professional responsibilities and the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities.

In a nutshell, the NHS’s Health Survey for England, of 8,000 adults, uncovered alarming rates of inactivity, heavy drinking, dieting and poor mental health.

What do we take from this?

Economically, people are feeling poorer, so they work longer and harder, often in sedentary jobs. Inflation is at a near six-year high and wages are suppressed. Research increasingly shows that social media plays a role in making us miserable. It isolates us, and makes us feel inadequate. I frequently hear that from people I see in my Priory clinic.

This is particularly acute amongst new mothers. In fact an opinion poll commissioned by the Priory Group showed that half of parents felt that ‘baby bloggers’ created an unrealistic image of what daily life is really like – with 52% of women questioned saying that, from their experience, pictures of “perfect parenting” on social media made them feel depressed. Some 43% of the parents thought that idealised pictures of parenthood were leading to a feeling of inadequacy among parents while 39% said it led to an increase in anxiety in new parents and over a third (36%) were concerned about an increase in levels of depression. The meteoric rise of “insta-mums” offer a very glamourous insight of what motherhood “might be like”, which can create very negative feelings amongst new mothers.

And young people’s mental health too is affected, yet they are obsessed with texting, tweeting, snapchatting, rather than meeting people face to face and starting an actual conversation. According to a Deloitte survey, people apparently touch their phones 2,617 times every day on average. Extreme users (the top 10 per cent) touch their phones more 5,400 times daily. Apple confirmed that iPhone users unlock their phones 80 times every day. That is about six to seven times every hour.

For many, Christmas is, in itself, a trigger for depression because, just like social media, there are raised expectations which, minus the reality, create unhappiness.

Expectations are one of the biggest causes of stress at Christmas, as people expect perfection – a perfect dinner, perfect conversation, perfect relationships – but this is fantasy. In many cases we are also spending time with people we don’t know that well – such as relatives we don’t see that often, and many people also have more complex family structures, parents divorce and remarry, families blend. As a result, traditions clash. Advertising – and social media – are partly to blame for our pursuit of perfection. Sometimes we want to improve on disappointing Christmasses we may have had as children.

Holiday stress has a particular impact again on hard-pressed working women, who may be expected to take charge of many of the holiday celebrations, particularly the tasks related to preparing meals and decorating the home and present-buying and wrapping. This is on top of their workplace commitments and their caring responsibilities. Women say they have a harder time relaxing during the holidays and are more likely to take on all of the tasks associated with family celebrations, such as shopping, cooking, and cleaning.

No wonder perhaps then that more older women are drinking more.

Many women in their sixties who I see as patients said it started with a “why not?” attitude to drinking in retirement, partly because they had more time.

But then the very real difficulties of aging – failing health, limited mobility, financial hardship, caring for an ailing spouse or funding adult children who can’t get on the housing ladder – can easily pile up and encourage a “just another glass” mentality.

This NHS report is a massive wake-up call to us all. It’s frequently said that the measure of any nation is the health and happiness of its people. If this is an MoT for the nation’s health, then we are failing on many measures. Good health, including good mental health, is the most precious asset any of us have, and this report shows we need to confront the reality that our lifestyles are killing us. There is a high cost to eating and drinking like there is no tomorrow. The fact that even after campaigns like Dry January, Go Sober for October, and Alcohol Awareness Week, we still drink unsafe amounts is worrying and symptomatic of what I see at Priory all the time. Things have got to change.