Cathy Johnman: We must break cycle of poverty for babies born in Scotland

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This latest report, from the Registrar General for Scotland, contains good news and bad news.

The good news is that it shows life expectancy is continuing to rise across Scotland. The bad news is that, despite these increases, Scotland still has the lowest life-expectancy levels for the whole of the UK and, indeed, one of the worst in all of Europe.

What makes this news worse is that these differences are widening over time, suggesting that, while life expectancy is getting better, it isn’t improving as fast as it is in other countries.

Why is this? Could it be simply how we behave? Our smoking, poor diet and drinking habits?

Yes, we Scots do too much of these, but no more than those in the north of England – yet we fare worse in health terms.

So, it’s much more complex than this. A significant problem is the health inequalities which exist within our country.

There are marked variations in health and life expectancy experienced in different areas.

As the report highlights, babies born in the Glasgow City Council area fare the worst – as they can expect to live nearly four years fewer than those born anywhere else in Scotland.

Research suggests it’s the relationship between social, cultural, behaviour, genetic and environmental factors that have led to this “Glasgow effect”.

In particular, deprivation appears to be a key factor.

Certainly, Glasgow has more deprived areas than anywhere else in Scotland, and these have the worst life expectancy.

It should not be inevitable that how long we live is determined by where we are born.

For Scotland to address this complex issue, the same social, cultural, behavioural and environmental factors which result in poor health and reduced life expectancy, can help to guide the solutions.

In addition to promoting healthier lives, it is important we prevent illness by ensuring that health and social support services can be accessed by everyone.

We need to look at the environment and how we can use it to promote healthy food choices and physical activity.

We also need to address the ill-health and early death caused by excessive alcohol use via cultural change, policy and health improvement messages.

However, to really get to grips with improving our life expectancy, we need to break the cycle of poverty for babies born in Scotland in the future. Only this way can we ensure health for all in Scotland.

Only by improving our health and reducing wealth inequalities can we become safer, healthier and stronger.

l Dr Cathy Johnman is a clinical lecturer in public health at Glasgow University.