Britain's financial health may be on the slide but our physical health is improving sharply.
Despite expanding waistlines and increasing slothfulness, deaths from cancer, heart disease and suicide are falling fast.
Figures published yesterday show deaths from cancer fell by 18.2 per cent in the decade to 2007 and are on course to hit the target reduction set by the Government four years ago of a 20 per cent fall by 2009-11.
Deaths from heart disease and stroke are down 44 per cent over the same period and have already exceeded the 40 per cent target set for 2009-11.
Suicides are also down by 13.9 per cent and if the trend of the past 10 years is continued the target of a 20 per cent reduction will be met, the Department of Health said.
However, no progress has been made in cutting deaths from accidents in spite of improvements in road safety and better car design. Death rates are 0.3 per cent higher than 10 years ago and the 20 per cent target reduction will be widely missed on present trends.
There has also been no reduction in health inequalities, with those in poorer areas still dying younger than those in better-off ones.
The dramatic falls in deaths from cancer and heart disease are due to improved screening and treatment as well as healthier lifestyles, especially the decline in smoking.
Statins, the cholesterol-lowering medicine taken by about four million people in Britain, have reduced heart disease and clot-busting drugs and procedures such as angioplasty (widening coronary arteries) have saved thousands of lives from stroke and heart attack.
However, doctors argue there is further to go. A recent study suggested only two-thirds of patients diagnosed with heart disease were receiving the correct treatment to control blood pressure and increasing that to 90 per cent would save an extra 3,000 lives a year.
Cancer is becoming more common as the population ages but more people are living with the disease for longer, in some cases for decades. Improved screening and awareness are leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment. Breast cancer is on the rise but has also seen one of the biggest declines in death rates, thanks to improved surgery, radiotherapy and drug treatment.
Suicide is a key risk in severe mental illness and community teams set up to help patients have cut deaths – as have better design of mental hospitals to reduce stress and remove points such as curtain rails from which patients in despair might hang themselves.
The British Heart Foundation welcomed the fall in deaths but criticised the failure to narrow the gap between rich and poor. "Heart disease is preventable so we should be trying to make the greatest progress in the areas with the highest rates," a spokesman said.