Fri, Jun 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Faltering life expectancy in the UK blamed on austerity

For the first time in 100 years, Britons are dying earlier. The UK now has the worst health trend in western Europe and experts say that the impact of cuts to social spending is a major factor

By Robin McKie  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

A team of researchers, statisticians and geographers are to gather on Friday next week at University College London to tackle an issue of increasing concern for doctors and health experts. They will investigate why many UK citizens are now living shorter, less-healthy lives compared with the recent past.

The emergence of faltering life expectancy in Britain has caused particular alarm because it reverses a trend that has continued, almost unbroken, for close to 100 years. Over this period, lives have lengthened continuously, blessing more and more British people with the gift of old age.

However, now that increase has come to a halt, statisticians have discovered. Indeed, among many sections of the UK population, declines have set in.

Hence the meeting, organized by the British Society for Population Studies so delegates can use data — to be released by the British Office for National Statistics — to update their life expectancy projections.

“It is a perfect storm,” said Danny Dorling, a professor of social geography at Oxford University, who has organized the London meeting.

“Our faltering life expectancy rates show we have now got the worst trend in health anywhere in western Europe since the second world war. To achieve that, we must have made a lot of bad decisions,” he said.

Statisticians first noticed in 2013 that rises in life expectancy in the UK had begun to slow down. Gradually, the graph — which been rising for decades — flattened out until, a few years ago, it started to decline for increasing numbers of people.

The elderly, the poor and the newborn were worst affected. For example, life expectancies for those over 65 have dropped by more than six months.

The trend now causes considerable concern among doctors, who view life expectancy figures as barometers of the health of Britain. From this perspective, the nation is sickening and a host of different factors have been put forward as explanations.

One frequently made claim is that humans have simply reached the peak of longevity.

“Life expectancy cannot be expected to increase forever,” Conservative lawmaker Robert Courts told the British House of Commons recently.

However, many statisticians point out that life expectancy has continued to rise — well above UK levels — in many other places, including Hong Kong, China, Japan and Scandinavia.

Other factors must be involved, they say.

For its part, the UK Department of Health initially claimed that flu epidemics, triggered by harsh winters, were killing the weak and elderly, raising mortality rates and reducing life expectancies.

However, this idea is dismissed by Lucinda Hiam, an honorary research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“I was working as a GP [general practitioner] during this time and didn’t notice a dramatic increase in flu among patients coming into my practice,” she said.

In fact, it has been shown that five of the seven winters from 2011 to 2017 had above-average temperatures, making them unlikely triggers of flu epidemics.

Nevertheless, the department persisted with the idea for some time.

“When my colleagues and I first questioned the strength of impact that flu was having in increasing deaths and suggested the role of the cuts should be explored, we were dismissed by health officials, but since then the evidence of flu being solely responsible has largely evaporated,” Hiam said.

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