Clustering of unhealthy behaviours

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Part of Time to Think Differently

Having two or more unhealthy behaviours – smoking, drinking above sensible levels, and not sticking to guidelines on exercise and diet – increase the risk of mortality.

Having four of these behaviours reduces life expectancy by 14 years compared to having none (1).

Between 2003 and 2008, there was a 20 per cent reduction in the number in the population with three or four unhealthy behaviours, and a corresponding increase in those with one, two or none (1).

More disadvantaged groups are also more likely to have a cluster of unhealthy behaviours – smoking, drinking, low consumption of fruit and vegetables, low levels of physical activity. While the proportion of the population that engages in three or four unhealthy behaviours has declined from around 33 per cent in 2003 to 25 per cent in 2008, these reductions have been seen mainly among those in higher socio-economic and educational groups. People with no qualifications were more than five times as likely as those with higher education to engage in all four poor behaviours in 2008, compared with only three times as likely in 2003 (1).  

Research on why people adopt, maintain and give up unhealthy behaviours is sparse. The overall improvement in unhealthy behaviours is good news for public health as a whole. But the lack of progress for the poor will lead to widening health inequalities if the trend continues.

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  1. Buck D, Frosini F (2012) Clustering of unhealthy behaviours over time The King's Fund