Persisting health inequality continues to paint a mixed picture for the prospects of Preston residents, according to an annual report.
The latest batch of Public Health England (PHE) area overviews set out the challenges – set against a backdrop of budget cuts – facing local authority bosses.
As although life expectancy rates have seen a steady rise over the last decade, the city region has several areas of concern despite significant progress in recent years.
The most prominent of these, categorised by PHE as categories where Preston lags significantly behind the national average, are rates of teenage pregnancy, suicide and the amount of adults failing to meet regular exercise guidelines.
These are issues, according to county public health lead Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, heavily linked levels of deprivation and with Preston ranked among the 20 per cent most deprived unitary authority areas in the country, the inequality rates are stark.
For example, life expectancy is 10.7 years lower for men and 7.8 years lower for women in the most deprived areas compared with the least.
And one in four children is living in a low income family, according to the report.
Dr Karunanithi told the Lancashire Post: “Narrowing the gap in health between disadvantaged and more affluent communities is a key public health issue. This is very challenging and needs long-term commitment and action for us in Lancashire, as it does across the country.
“We have set out how we will address this and work with our partners to ensure everyone enjoys more years of their life living in good health in our own annual report.
“We do this by focusing on the major issues that lead to these inequalities, such as healthy eating, diabetes and smoking, as well as addressing the wider issues that affect health including unemployment, housing and transport.”
This is very challenging and needs long-term commitment and action for us in Lancashire, as it does across the country.
In terms of teenage pregnancy, although Preston’s rate remains considerably worse than national averages, recent progress through targeted campaigns has seen it reduced to close to its lowest rate for two decades (33.5 per 1,000 of the population, compared with 20.8, nationally).
But rates of suicide – 16.8 per 100,000 of the population – remain a significant area of concern with both the city and county council in the process of producing action plans to help bring the numbers down.
The amount of adults not hitting exercise targets set out by the chief medical officer (47.5 per cent compared with a 57 national average) is on the radar of public health bosses through the Active Lives and Healthy Weight schemes already in force around the county.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, added: “Preston’s health profile presents a mixed picture. The suicide rate in Preston is higher than the national average, although we have seen a reduction more recently. We are refreshing the multi-agency suicide prevention strategy, which will lead to joint action between organisations to reduce the number of suicides and support people affected by them.
“We’ve also commissioned new sexual health services to help reduce the number of women aged 18 and under who fall pregnant and to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections. These include improved specialist advice services for young people, providing clinics which are open at more convenient times and ensuring condoms are more easily available.
“The Active Lives and Healthy Weight scheme provides a range of support to help people become more active and manage their weight. People can refer themselves to activities including free exercise classes and support groups for people who want to raise their levels of activity. The close work we do with schools has contributed towards positive results in addressing childhood obesity.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Overall life expectancy rates 77.3 for men and 81.6 for women, have seen a steady rise – give or take a few fluctuations – over the last decade, with rates of 74.4 and 78.9 in 2007.
And the area compares favourably or is equal to the national average in areas such as long-term unemployment, childhood obesity (a category where it has struggled in the past) and infant mortality rates.
Dr Karunanithi said: “Despite the challenges we face, it’s positive to see that Preston has lower long-term unemployment, childhood obesity and infant mortality rates when compared to the national average.
“We have been running Safer Sleep for Baby, a joint campaign with other local organisations to help reduce the number of sudden infant deaths. The campaign focuses on making parents aware of six easy steps to follow before they put their baby to sleep.”
Improvements in life expectancy have almost “ground to a halt”, a leading academic has warned.
Professor Sir Michael Marmot said he was “deeply concerned” that increases in life expectancy had levelled off since 2010.
He said the stagnation needs “urgent” investigation.
Prof Marmot added: “I am deeply concerned with the levelling off, I expected it to just keep getting better. I would say it is a matter of urgency to try and examine why this has happened - it is not inevitable that it should have levelled off.
“I am deeply concerned that if we do not fund health care and social care adequately people will lead much worse lives.
“Whether that translates into an increase in mortality or a failure of mortality to go down, I don’t know.”
Figures show need for funding
The extent of health inequality in a majority of areas across the country have prompted calls for extra funding to be released to local authorities, which were handed control of public health in 2013.
Coun Izzi Seccombe, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “We know that those living in the most deprived communities experience poorer mental health, higher rates of smoking and greater levels of obesity than the more affluent. They spend more years in ill health and they die sooner.
“Reducing health inequalities is an economic and social challenge as well as a moral one.
“Local authorities and their public health teams understand how to use their traditional functions in conjunction with their newly acquired public health expertise to maximise the role councils can play in closing the unjust health inequalities gap.
“However, reductions in councils’ public health grants of more than £530m by the end of the decade will impact on the councils’ ability to continue this good work.
“Central government has to play its part in reducing poverty and breaking the link between deprivation, ill health and lower life expectancy.”
‘Calorie crackdown’ welcomed
Lancashire health bosses have welcomed new plans to introduce a ‘calorie crackdown’ on the likes of ready meals, pizzas, burgers, savoury snacks and sandwiches.
Primarily aimed at improving the health of children, the campaign has been put together by Public Health England (PHE) to limit over-consumption in a child’s early years.
Chief executive of PHE, Duncan Selbie, said: “A third of children leave primary school overweight or obese and an excess of calories – not just excess sugar consumption – is the root cause of this.”
It follows NHS England’s 2016 announcement for 10 ‘healthy towns’ across the UK - one of which is Whyndyke Farm, Flyde - aimed at encouraging further exercise, clean eating, and independent living into an old age to battle the likes of obesity and dementia.
PHE is set to publish its evidence in early 2018, followed by a consultation with the food industry, trade bodies and health non-governmental organisations.