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Life expectancy declining due to social inequality

Life expectancy is now as low as it was 16 years ago a report has found. 

A new report exploring the reasons behind stalling life expectancy improvements in the UK, has uncovered worrying trends affecting some of the population, including a rising number of avoidable deaths among the under 50s and a decrease in life expectancy for those living in more deprived areas.

Mortality and life expectancy trends in the UK: stalling progress, a new report from the Health Foundation released today (November 14), based on research by the London School of Economics and Political Science, shows inequalities in life expectancy between the richest and poorest have widened since 2011.

The report said that while people in wealthier areas of the UK continue to live longer, for those living in the most deprived areas, life expectancy is stalling, or even reversing. In fact, the slowdown in mortality improvements has been so large that life expectancy predictions are back to where they were 16 years ago.

And while life expectancy improvements continue in European countries such as France and the Netherlands for the under the 50s, the UK is falling behind. The research shows that avoidable deaths, including accidental poisoning from drugs and alcohol and suicide are the leading causes of death among UK adults aged 20-49.

This suggests the UK is following worrying trends seen in the US, where there has been a spike in alcohol and drug-related deaths among young people. In Scotland, drug-related death rates exceed those of the US, with 218 deaths per million population, compared to 217 per million.

The research also found that women living in the most deprived areas of the UK are now expected to live for 78.7 years, versus 86.2 years in the least deprived, a whole 7.5 years less. Furthermore, the average life expectancy for women in the UK, at 83.1 years, is one of the lowest among comparable countries, more than three years behind Spain.

While the slowdown in national life expectancy improvements is not unique to the UK, the report highlights the need for concern, given the UK already had a lower life expectancy than many comparable countries.

Jo Bibby, director of health at the Health Foundation, said stalling life expectancy needs to be a priority for the next government. She said:

‘These research findings demonstrate just how important it is that we closely monitor life expectancy and mortality trends, particularly for the most vulnerable people in society.

‘Mortality data is complex and we need an independent view on not only how long people are living for but also why they are dying. This needs to be a priority for the incoming government so that its findings can start influencing local and national policies as soon as possible.’

In response to the findings, the Health Foundation is calling for the establishment of an independent body to track and analyse trends in mortality, provide expert advice on how best to protect life expectancy and improve it for future generations.

The foundation said such a body would be responsible for timely monitoring and communication of all data linked to mortality (for all sections of the population), together with commentary on the policy action needed.

Professor Michael Murphy, Professor of Demography at London School of Economics and author of the report said overall, life expectancy improvements have stalled in all the countries that make up the UK since 2010 – 11, now lagging two years behind Spain, France and Italy. He said:

‘There has been a general slowdown in mortality improvement in many high-income countries, including the UK. Appropriate action to address such adverse trends, which appear to bear most heavily on the less advantaged in UK society, requires understanding of the underlying causes.

‘These causes are multiple and complex—working across all age-groups, seasons and both sexes—and while further work is required to uncover these relationships, some of the simplified explanations that have been advanced are clearly inadequate.’

Responding to the report, Veena Raleigh, senior fellow at The King’s Fund, a charity working to improve health and care in England, said the fund is calling for a cross-government strategy to tackle health inequalities. She said:

‘Today’s reports are timely and important, as they provide detailed analyses of mortality and examine some of the potential causes. Female life expectancy has virtually flatlined since 2011, despite being among the lowest in comparable European countries.

‘We need a better understanding of the complex causes of stalling life expectancy, including of any commonalities with Europe, but today’s reports add to a body of evidence that shows that action needs to be taken now.

‘Improving life expectancy and reducing health inequalities must be a focus for the new government. Action to stem the slowing improvements in major killer diseases such as cardiovascular disease; reverse the rising death rates in young people; and support the growing number of older people with dementia and other long-term conditions that make them particularly vulnerable would all help to reverse the current trend.

‘More focus is needed on prevention and tackling the risk factors for poor health, and The King’s Fund has called for a cross-government strategy to tackle health inequalities. UK spending on health and social care per capita, and as a proportion of GDP, is lower than in many comparable European countries, and needs to be put on a more realistic footing if we are to achieve comparable health outcomes.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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