Charities for older people and healthcare think tanks have united in their concern over new figures out recently that show that growth in life expectancy in the UK has come to a halt and in some parts of the country has actually decreased.
According to figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), UK life expectancy at 65 years did not grow for males or females in 2015-2017, remaining at 18.6 and 20.9 years, respectively. This was the case for all four UK countries, except for males born in Northern Ireland, who saw their life expectancy decline by 0.1 years.
Overall, the UK has seen one of the largest slowdowns in life expectancy at birth and at the age of 65 of other comparable countries, including Switzerland, Italy, France, and Spain.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said the figures were “deeply depressing” and called for extra investment into Britain’s care system, whereas the King’s Fund said the new statistics were “disturbing”.
According to the King’s Fund, several factors could have caused the slowdown such as a Europe-wide spike in flu-related deaths reported for 2015 and a general slowing over recent years in the decline in mortality rates for diseases such as heart attack and stroke.
It said that given that life expectancy is lower in the UK than in many European countries, especially in females, and that improvements here are weaker, it was important to establish what’s happening, why and what can be done to reverse these trends.
The think tank is now working with the Health Foundation to investigate mortality trends in the UK. This includes research commissioned by the Health Foundation from the London School of Economics and Political Science, which it will jointly oversee.
The aim is to disentangle the reasons why life expectancy is stalling in conjunction with other factors such as falling smoking rates and rising levels of obesity and dementia.
Dr Veena Raleigh, Senior Fellow at the King’s Fund, said: “Some of these patterns are reported in other countries and we must work internationally to understand the causes. We also need to investigate why life expectancy improvements are worse in the UK.”
The figures were described as “concerning” by Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, the older people’s charity.
“More must be done to understand what is driving this,” she said. “These figures starkly highlight the need for health and care services to adapt to our ageing population, and the government must ensure that these services can support people to live long, healthy, happy lives.”
Preventative measures have never been more important. In an article in this issue, Tim Grove highlights that cardiovascular disease can be prevented by addressing behavioural and medical risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity, high alcohol consumption, hypertension, dyslipidaemia and hyperglycaemia.
Yet, this month alone has seen news from Diabetes UK that less than half of over 40s eligible for an NHS Health Check in the last five years have actually received one. The charity has urged local authorities to do more to get people to their health check.
Cancer Research UK has also highlighted that half (51%) of people invited to bowel screening for the first time in 2015 didn’t take part. Averaged figures from 2010–15 in England showed that those from deprived areas were less likely to participate (43%) than those in wealthier regions (57%).
Experts said that while the reasons behind the ONS figures were complex, it was clear that income and wealth played a role, and called for “urgent action to loosen poverty’s grip on the health of our nation”.
Jon Date, Head of External Affairs at the specialist think tank the International Longevity Centre - UK, said: “What is clear from our research is that the gap in life expectancy between the rich and poor is worsening over time. The reasons behind these disparities are complex, but it is utterly unacceptable to witness a growing health divide in 21st century Britain.”