Rising rates of life expectancy are grinding to a halt after more than 100 years of continuous progress, according to University College London expert Sir Michael Marmot who said the slowdown “historically highly unusual”.
He said it was “entirely possible” austerity was to blame and said the issue needed looking at urgently.
Using Office for National Statistics projections for babies born since 2000, Sir Michael, who has advised both the government and World Health Organization, showed the rate of increase in life expectancy had nearly halved since 2010. Between 2000 and 2015, life expectancy at birth increased by one year every five years for women and by one year every 3.5 years for men. But this compares to one year every 10 years for women and one for every six for men post-2010.
Sir Michael, director of the Institute of Health Equity at UCL, said this showed the growth in life expectancy was “pretty close to having ground to a halt”. He added: “I am deeply concerned with the levelling off, I expected it to keep getting better.”
He explained social factors such as education, employment and working conditions and poverty all affected life expectancy by influencing lifestyles. And as austerity was placing pressures on these, they may in turn be influencing life expectancy.
He also highlighted “miserly” funding settlements for the NHS and social care, which meant the quality of life for older people would have deteriorated and could well affect their life expectancy. This was a particularly pressing issue given the numbers of people with dementia, although in itself may also be playing a role in the levelling off.
Sir Michael dismissed the idea that the slowing of life expectancy could be related to humans reaching the outer limit of how long they could live. Other countries, such as Hong Kong, had longer life expectancy than England and had continued to see consistent rises.
Alzheimer’s Society chief executive Jeremy Hughes said Sir Michael was right to point the finger of blame at austerity. He said: “Too often we hear the consequences of inadequate, underfunded care – our investigation last year revealed people with dementia left in soiled sheets, becoming ill after eating out of date food, and ending up in costly hospital or care home admissions unnecessarily. The government has to act before the care system collapses entirely.”
Average life expectancy in England is now 83 for women and 79.4 for men. One of the places with the biggest gap in life expectancy – reported following the Grenfell Tower fire – is Kensington and Chelsea where the richest people live 16 years longer than the poorest.