UK risking fall in national life expectancy as social inequalities increase The Health Foundation calls for new independent body to scrutinise life expectancy trends and influencing factors

14 November 2019

New analysis of mortality data exploring 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. In fact the slowdown in mortality improvements has been so large that life expectancy predictions are back to where they were 16 years ago.

Mortality and life expectancy trends in the UK: stalling progress, a new report from the Health Foundation, 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. 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.

For the under 50s, while life expectancy improvements continue in European countries such as France and the Netherlands, 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.

Whilst 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.

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. 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.

Jo Bibby, Director of Health at the Health Foundation, commented:

'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.'

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.

Professor Michael Murphy, Professor of Demography at London School of Economics and author of the report adds:

'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.'

The report is based on new analysis carried out by the London School of Economics and a literature review of existing research.

About the research

The Health Foundation commissioned LSE Consulting (part of the London School of Economics and Political Science) to carry out a literature review of previous research, plus new analyses into mortality trends. The aim was to provide an in-depth picture of what is happening, and a comprehensive critical assessment of the multiple potential drivers of recent trends.

The research is the first in a series of research commissions over the coming years to explore current and underexplored population health issues.

Media contact

For more information please contact 0203 861 3957 or healthfoundation@grayling.com

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