A Third of Middle-aged Britons Have Multiple Health Conditions: Study

Peter Russell

July 28, 2021

More than a third of adults have two or more chronic health problems in middle age, with higher prevalence linked to social and economic inequalities in early life, researchers said.

Co-occurring mental and physical health conditions, including diabetes or hypertension, appeared to be particularly common among British adults in their late forties, the study in the BMC Public Health journal found.

Promoting health, and targeting those at risk through primary care, should be a priority for Government and health planners to prevent the pattern being repeated, the authors from University College London (UCL) said.

Examining the Progress of Generation X

The observational study investigated the prevalence of multimorbidity for people in so-called 'Generation X' in the 1970 British Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of a group of people born in a single week that year.

The researchers looked at data from 7951 participants who took part in a biomedical assessment between 2016 and 2018 when they were aged between 46 and 48.

The participants were asked to report whether they had various chronic physical health conditions, such as recurrent back problems, asthma, heart problems, and arthritis. Mental health and high-risk drinking were also assessed, using separate questionnaires.

The prevalence of multimorbidity in this age group was found to be 33.8%.

People with fathers with unskilled jobs had a 43% higher risk of multimorbidity in midlife than those whose fathers were professional workers.

Lower birth weight, higher body mass index, lower cognitive ability at age 10, and worse emotional and conduct issues at age 16, were all linked with an increased risk of having multiple chronic health problems in middle age, the study found.

The Main Multimorbidities

Among the main health conditions for people in the study were:

  • High-risk drinking (26.3%)

  • Recurrent back problems (20.9%)

  • Mental health problems (19.1%)

  • Hypertension (15.7%)

  • Asthma/bronchitis (11.6%)

  • Arthritis (7.7%)

The study also showed the most common combinations of chronic health conditions in this cohort. More than 4% had mental health problems and high blood pressure, 3% suffered from mental health problems and asthma, 2.5% had mental ill-health and arthritis, and 2% had diabetes and hypertension.

Health Inequalities

Dr Dawid Gondek from UCL's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, who led the study, said that the findings pointed to "stark health inequalities, which appear to begin early in childhood".

Co-author Prof George Ploubidis from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, added: "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."

Gondek, D., Bann, D., Brown, M. et al. Prevalence and early-life determinants of mid-life multimorbidity: evidence from the 1970 British birth cohort. BMC Public Health 21, 1319 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11291-w

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