Children living in deprived areas of Scotland twice as likely to experience poor health

Published: 21 October 2022

Children in poorer areas more at risk of obesity, infant mortality and not receiving childhood immunisations.

Published 24th October 2022

Research for Health Inequalities in Scotland: An independent review has revealed large and sometimes increasing differences in the health of children living in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland.

The research, carried out by the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, is part of an independent review undertaken by the UK-focused independent charity The Health Foundation, working with Scottish research partners and an expert advisory group. The review provides a robust evidence base for future policy development and delivery – action that aims to improve people’s long-term health and close the health gap between the richest and poorest.

The research on key indicators of child and adult health is one of several pieces of analysis that will be released over the coming months, leading to a final report by the Health Foundation in early 2023. The research released today focuses on inequalities in children’s health. The full report will be published before the end of the year. The interim findings show that in Scotland:

  • Since the start of the century, around 1 in 10 5-year-olds have been at risk of childhood obesity. However, over the past decade, this has been rising in more deprived areas and falling in the least deprived.
  • A similar story of widening inequality over the past ten years is also seen for other areas of child health – including for infant mortality and childhood immunisations.
  • The most recent data show that children living in Scotland’s most deprived fifth of areas are at least twice as likely to experience each of these outcomes than those in the least deprived fifth of areas.

The situation is not entirely negative - smoking in pregnancy, breastfeeding and child development all show signs of progress, but inequalities in these outcomes persist.

The foundations for maximising health, wellbeing and life opportunities are built in the early years, and these data show that while there have been some improvements, children’s start in life is not equal. These inequalities can follow through into later life, affecting academic attainment, job opportunities, and health as an adult.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Anna Pearce, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, said:

“This widening of inequality in some areas of children’s health, including the risk of childhood obesity, is worrying, especially with families’ financial circumstances expected to worsen.

“We know that these inequalities are not going to be resolved by solely targeting people’s behaviours. For example, inequalities in childhood obesity are likely to be driven not by differences in children’s physical activity levels (which do not vary by deprivation), but by differences in diet and a healthy balanced diet is considerably more expensive calorie for calorie and therefore increasingly inaccessible to those on the lowest incomes.

“This is a national problem for Scotland, and the data show a growing inequality gap.”

David Finch, Assistant Director, the Health Foundation, added:

“Our review aims to fully understand all the factors which cause health inequality in Scotland, and to provide policy makers with a foundation to improve the outcomes for the sections of the population who are struggling the most.

“This stark and concerning data on childhood obesity and other childhood inequalities – shows the importance of supporting good health and tackling inequalities for children from the youngest ages and for their families.

“The evidence pointing to nutrition as the driver, rather than physical activity, requires us to examine the links between the health of our children and cost of living, including access to healthy food – a particular concern with food prices rising by 13% in the year to August.

“We hope our review will create a foundation for improving the health of people across Scotland.”


First published: 21 October 2022

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