It is the first of its kind to analyse data trends in mortality and longevity in high resolution detail. Deaths were recorded between 2002-2019 from across England to assess differences in life expectancy between communities with a population of roughly 8,000 people. The differences in life expectancy between regions were stark, reinforcing understanding of the long suffered north-south divide.
The greatest increases came from the wealthiest area, which already had the highest life expectancy in 2002. With life expectancy increases of up to 9 years were seen in some parts of London and the ‘home counties’, compared to negligible increases in parts of the urban north.
This has created an increasing inequality between the most affluent and the most deprived communities. On average, the life expectancy between 2017-2019 was 8 years lower for women and 7 years lower for men in the cities of Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester and Liverpool compared to communities in Kensington, Chelsea, Camden, and Westminster.
A study by King's Fund also revealed that ‘healthy life' expectancy had fallen behind life expectancy growth in the UK over the past 3 years. The poorest quartile of the UK population is likely to spend a 3rd of their life in poor health, whilst the richest quartile will on average spend only a 6th of their life in poor health.
The majority of communities saw their life expectancy increase between 2002-2010, and on a national level, the average life expectancy from birth between 2000 and 2019 increased from 77.17 to 81.15, with the gender gap in mortality also decreasing.
From 2010 onwards, the decade’s long advance in longevity reversed its trend. The most alarming deterioration seen in 2014 and 2019, where the number of areas with a declining life expectancy was 1270 *18.7% for women and 784 (11.5%) for men.
In Newcastle, life expectancy declined by an average of 0.17 years for women and 0.12 years for men. The areas with stagnating life expectancy and healthy life expectancy were seen in West and East of the city. While the pandemic has caused a decrease in life expectancy across the nation. Prior to the pandemic, these figures were already cause for concern.
Lead author, Theo Rashid from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said: “In both England and the USA, life expectancy declines are associated with unemployment and insecure employment following deindustrialisation”. Going on to say that “reductions in social and welfare support, and reduced funding for local governments” were also to blame. In the UK, these factors were found to have larger effects in the North than in London and the South.
The authors look beyond simply wealth inequality in their explanation of the findings, seeing more deep-seated structural issues such as disparity in infrastructure spending, investment and allocation of resources to key public services, particularly health, transport and education. Rashid continued: "These changes impact life expectancy because they are associated with poorer nutrition and housing, riskier behaviours, and more restricted health care services, all of which lead to worse health and premature deaths."
The study found that, historically, government attempts to narrow the north-south divide have never made a lasting impact. Since the era of austerity, in which cuts to local funding disproportionately affected the north, trends in health inequalities have been worsening. The authors are concerned that the ‘levelling up’ agenda will not provide enough resources to improve people’s life expectancy and morbidity rates.