Britain has a worse record of premature death from many diseases than a host of other comparable countries, and the gap is widening, experts have warned.
Between 1990 and 2010 life expectancy in the UK increased by an average of 4.2 years to 79.9 years. But the trend masks worrying declines when matched against other nations with similar levels of health care, it is claimed.
In 1990 the UK ranked 10th in a league table of 19 countries showing years of life lost (YLL) per 100,000 members of the population. YLL is a standard method of measuring levels of premature death. Twenty years later Britain had slipped to 14th in the table, with only five countries showing worse figures.
In terms of death rate (numbers of deaths per 100,000), the UK's position in the table fell from 12th in 1990 to 14th in 2010. Some specific causes of death had a significantly increased impact over the two decades, including Alzheimer's disease, cirrhosis of the liver and drug use disorders. For Britain the best news was that it saw the largest fall in death rates from heart disease of any of the 19 countries.
Scientists compared the UK's record for a range of important health indicators with that of 14 other European Union countries, plus Australia, Canada, Norway and the US. Data was drawn from the Global Burden of Disease Study, published in 2010. The results covered 259 diseases and injuries, and 67 risk factors or risk factor clusters.
Outlining their findings in The Lancet medical journal, the international authors pointed to the biggest individual risk factors for illness and disease in the UK.
Heading the list was tobacco, accounting for 12% of the disease burden, followed by high blood pressure, high body-mass, physical inactivity, alcohol and poor diet. Levels of disability at specific ages had not improved in the UK over the 20 year period, the study found. This was a problem shared to a greater or lesser degree by all the countries. Major causes of disability varied by age but included mental and behavioural disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse and osteoarthritis and other musculoskeletal problems.
The research was published as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined plans to save 30,000 lives in the coming seven years by improving outcomes for patients with cardiovascular diseases. He said more people will be trained to use defibrillators and conduct CPR and relatives of people who have died suddenly of cardiac conditions are to be offered tests to see whether they too are at high risk.
Mr Hunt also set out his ambition to get the whole country to match the performance levels of the top hospitals. A Department of Health spokeswoman said that if all patients suffering from a transient ischaemic attack, also known as mini strokes, were treated as rapidly as those treated in the top 25% of hospitals, 540 strokes would be avoided in England each year.
Mr Hunt has previously pledged to cut the number of avoidable deaths from cancer, heart disease, strokes, respiratory and liver disease. "Despite real progress in cutting deaths we remain a poor relative to our global cousins on many measures of health, something I want to change," he said. "For too long we have been lagging behind and I want the reformed health system to take up this challenge and turn this shocking underperformance around. Today's proposals for those with cardiovascular diseases will bring better care, longer and healthier lives and better patient experience - which we must all strive to deliver."