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UK Life Expectancy Growing at Slower Rate than Rest of G7, Research Shows

Life expectancy in the UK has grown at a slower rate than comparable countries over the past seven decades, according to researchers, who say this is the result of widening inequality.

The UK lags behind all other countries in the group of G7 advanced economies except the US, according to a new analysis of global life expectancy rankings published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

While life expectancy has increased in absolute terms, similar countries have experienced larger increases, they wrote. In the 1950s, the UK had one of the longest life expectancies in the world, ranking seventh globally behind countries such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but in 2021 the UK was ranked 29th.

The researchers said this was partly due to income inequality, which rose considerably in the UK during and after the 1980s.

Prof Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “That rise also saw an increase in the variation in life expectancy between different social groups. One reason why the overall increase in life expectancy has been so sluggish in the UK is that in recent years it has fallen for poorer groups.

“While politicians invoke global factors, especially the effects of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, the reality is that, as in the 1950s, the country suffers from major structural and institutional weaknesses.”

The researchers, who include Oxford University geographer Danny Dorling, described the relative decline of life expectancy in the UK as “stark” and said it reflected recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) findings that the UK is now the second most economically unequal country in Europe after Bulgaria.

One of the co-authors, Dr Lucinda Hiam of Oxford University, said as well as the longer-term pressures, the government has an “acute crisis to address”, exemplified by deaths caused by long A&E waits, and this is growing more urgent due to the rise in the cost of living.

“A relative worsening of population health is evidence that all is not well. It has historically been an early sign of severe political and economic problems,” she said.

“This new analysis suggests that the problems the UK faces are deep-seated and raises serious questions about the path that this country is following.”

The authors note that British life expectancy began slipping relative to other countries in the 1960s, with especially marked falls during the 1970s, a time of the oil crisis and economic turmoil, and the 2010s, in the aftermath of the financial crisis and when austerity policies were implemented, resulting in “the average UK household having lower incomes in 2012 than in France or Germany, paving the way for a decade in which health and the economy stagnate”.

The researchers’ findings reflect other recent studies which have shed light on how widening inequality and deepening poverty are resulting in deteriorating health outcomes.

One showed that the UK is now falling behind most comparable European countries on maternal mortality, which is considered a warning signal for the wider health system.

Dr Jonathan Filippon, senior lecturer in health systems at Queen Mary University of London, said social inequality had worsened in the UK and US because of the “predominant ideologies”.

“The major liberal approach to nation states inaugurated by the duo [Margaret] Thatcher and [Ronald] Reagan had disastrous consequences to their population’s levels of equality,” he said.

“While markets can continue to thrive in countries – even during a crisis such as we’ve seen recently with the UK energy sector – they can also exacerbate inequalities as well.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the government’s ambition is to improve healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 and reduce the gap between areas where it is highest and lowest by 2030.

This would be achieved by alleviating pressure on the health system, and a plan to deliver “one of the fastest and longest sustained improvements in emergency waiting times in the NHS’s history”, backed by £1bn in funding.

Source : The Guardian