On the surface, we’re one of the most advanced nations in the world. One way this is reflected is through our average life expectancy. We can expect to live 81 years, ranking us in the top 10 of European nations. But peeling back a few layers reveals a different, often unacknowledged, picture of the actual state of physical and mental health.
A less frequently referred to statistic is healthy life expectancy, or the number of years we can expect to live free of disease. And our UK performance? Our average healthy life expectancy in the UK is just 61 years. This means we can expect to live 20 years of disease burdened life, and more like 25–30 for those in the most disadvantaged areas. Within Europe, this ranks us almost 20th.
“Healthy life expectancy in the UK is just 61 years”
The disease burden referred to in this calculation mainly involves the more easily identifiable physical conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, arthritis etc. However I’d like to draw attention to another quality of life destroyer, which many Brits are all too familiar with.
Every week in the UK about 20% of us experience anxiety or depression symptoms. And it’s estimated that only 1 in 8 UK adults receives treatment. And those stats are from pre-Covid times. Covid19 has pushed addiction services to the brink. We’re firmly in the top ten most depressed nations within Europe.
Why am I painting this sad picture? Because there’s so much opportunity for improvement. For the last few months at Holly Health, we’ve been building a scalable solution, to help increase disease free years for millions of people. And it doesn’t involve having a body or brain transplant 🤔. Below, I’m going to highlight some of the biggest factors which got us to this position, followed by an introduction to what we believe is the solution.
Why are we, in the UK, performing worse than many of our neighbours? Covid19 has highlighted that we have higher rates of obesity than all European nations except Turkey and Malta, and many of us have been aware of our high rates of untreated depression and anxiety for years.
Lifestyle + Pressures
The obvious one. Nowadays we walk less, eat more processed foods, sit for longer, drink more, and cook less. You’d think that we’d all end our days with huge amounts of excess energy, eager to get out and run, swim, skip, walk or cycle. However, the pressures we put onto our brains at work, while commuting, while social media scanning, are immense. For most of us, the pace of living and working wears us out cognitively. We don’t sleep well, consumption of food and drink form some of our coping behaviours, and we have little in the tank for the level of physical activity our bodies need.
“The pressures we put onto our brains at work, while commuting, while social media scanning, are immense”
The ‘I’m fine’ culture
The ‘I’m fine’ culture is not a UK only problem, but we do have a whole tradition around bottling issues up. And we’re masters of distraction. A bad week can be patched up by a few drinks at the pub, or a takeaway with a film followed by ice cream. Often our short term distractions, which feel at the time like they’re relieving us and boosting happiness, are the things which lead to longer term weight gain, or more psychological challenges.
The NHS is underfunded and under resourced. There’s a general hesitation to burden your GP with ongoing issues like weight gain or psychological pressures, partly due to the assumption that the problem isn’t ‘urgent’ enough, and partly because you’re not sure they’ll be able to help. Those who do seek psychological support via the NHS are often left waiting over 3 months before a first appointment with a qualified practitioner. And regarding weight management — the majority of GPs have received no formal training on how to coach lifestyle or habit changes, and even if they did, there’s a limit to what can be achieved in a 10 minute appointment.
Working with an experienced, objective professional is a proven method for successfully treating lifestyle related conditions. But, because we have the NHS, we’re not in the practice of paying directly for healthcare, so using private counsellors for things like stress or depression is not commonplace — fees are high (£50+ per session), and access isn’t straightforward. Similarly, paying fees for personal trainers, nutritionists or dieticians is out of reach for much of the population. This means that most individuals never get any personalised professional support for lifestyle related challenges.
“Most individuals never get any personalised professional support for lifestyle related challenges”
A melting pot of financial challenges have been brewing for years. The housing crisis means many will never own a property, and if they do, they might not leave their parents’ until their 30s. Those who are lucky enough to go to university will be lumped with tuition fee debt of £30,000. Not to mention the effects of Covid19, already having a huge impact on income and job security. None of these circumstances do anything to help individual feelings of self confidence or control.
You’ll note that I refer to weight related and psychological challenges together. This is deliberate. Both are closely related to, or caused by, the accumulation of small actions we take on a daily basis — i.e. our lifestyle habits. It really doesn’t take much to tip humans into a weight gaining scenario — one sugary snack each day or one glass of wine each evening can be enough to push someone into a downwards spiral. And often the presence of one challenge (weight gain or depression) accelerates the other. Those struggling with obesity are 55% more likely to suffer from depression. And conversely those who suffer stress, anxiety or depression experience declines in energy levels, and are more likely to turn to food as a coping mechanism.
I don’t mean to oversimplify things. The conditions are not always connected. But what I’d like to highlight is that weight gain and obesity are not as simple to address as is often referred to in the press — i.e a problem solved by eating less and moving more. We have to acknowledge that what’s causing weight gain in many cases, is stress and lack of psychological capacity.
“Weight gain and obesity are not as simple to address as is often referred to in the press”
What we’re addressing here is a multi level problem. The scary thought of 20+ disease burdened years for each of us, the fact that many are suffering psychologically (particularly right now), and the inaccessibility of personalised professional help.
Many of the stressors we experience now are not going anywhere. Covid19 is still around, we still have fast paced jobs and lives, and British winter is coming 😩.
But, there is a way out. At Holly Health, we believe that to cope, function, and thrive in our modern lifestyles, we need to address our lifestyle habits, one tiny habit at a time.
The trick is to start small…give yourself a little confidence by showing that you can control some of the small things, and then work up from there. Psychologically, when we feel in control of even just one small thing, we start to feel able to handle the bigger things. And when we look more closely at our small behaviours, we can catch the moments where we’re subconsciously using food and drink for coping mechanisms, and intercept that process.
When we’re proactive with this, we can prepare ourselves with simple but effective tools — 2 minutes of deep breathing, 5 minutes of physical activity, being prepared with a healthier snack alternative for when tired and hungry.
But we also recognise the significant challenges of starting this process. We take so many hundreds of actions each day, which should we focus on first? And if we can decide our focus areas, how do we know what exactly we should change? And even harder, how do we make that change consistently for days and weeks to come? We have found no suitable, accessible solution to this. That’s why we’re building Holly Health.
Holly Health is a digital service to help individuals to prioritise, achieve, and sustain small changes to lifestyle habits, for better physical and mental health. Our pilot users increased their energy levels by 20% within 1 month, with similar increases to self confidence, control, and overall optimism. We’re confident that use of the service will lead to gradual and sustained weight loss, and extended healthy life years. A joint study between Harvard and well renowned international medical centres found that the presence of 4–5 healthy habits in someone’s life, leads to between 7–10 additional disease free years. We’re not talking about life overhaul, just small consistent changes like exercising more, eating well, and drinking in moderation.
And that leads me to my final point. Now is one of the most challenging times many people have ever faced. Without making support accessible, many will lose additional healthy life years. We’re going to be launching a beta version of Holly Health in the coming weeks. And we’re giving away free access for 3 months to the first 50 people to sign up. If you or someone you know could benefit from Holly Health, you can claim your free space here (first come first served).
There is nothing more important than health and wellbeing. We can’t wait to get Holly Health out there and would love your help spreading the word. Please point your connections to this article if you think they will find value 🙏