NHS Health Scotland
Stalling life expectancy is a warning light for public health in Scotland
Two reports published recently (08 February 2019) show that the increase in life expectancy that has shown steady progress in Scotland since the Second World War, has now stalled and that health inequalities have worsened. In the past seven years, Scotland has seen the slowest growth in life expectancy, since at least the late 1970s and death rates have now begun to rise for people living in our poorest areas.
These trends mean it will take nearly 21 years to add a year to a women’s life expectancy, and 11.5 years to add a year to a man’s. Over the previous 20 years (1992-2011) life expectancy gain was much faster, taking just 5.5 years to add a year to a woman’s life expectancy, and 4 years for a man. Scotland has the lowest life expectancy in the UK. At the current slow rates of improvement, life expectancy in Scotland won’t catch up with the life expectancy England had in 2016 until 2058 (for women) and 2045 (for men).
In addition, between 2006 and 2011, death rates were lower across all of society – including in our poorest areas. However, from 2012 to 2017, death rates in our poorest areas increased by 1%, meaning that health inequalities also increased.
Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at NHS Health Scotland, recently said:
“What we see here is a worrying trend. Life expectancy not only gives an indication of how long people are likely to live, but also serves as a ‘warning light’ for the public’s health. In addition, the fact that socioeconomic position now plays a bigger role in how long you live than it did before is cause for concern.
“There are likely to be a number of factors at play. The strongest candidates are recent policies that address recent economic setbacks which have reduced spending on benefits, squeezed incomes and trapped people in poverty – these may all have contributed. Cuts to council budgets and pressures on key local services, such as social care, could also have had an impact. There have been some severe flu outbreaks in recent years which will have increased demands on services too. All of these factors – and more – are likely to be important in explaining the recent trends. Whilst there is further work to do to clarify the causes, we know enough to recommend action now.
“Protecting budgets for services that determine our health (like social care, housing, social security benefits and so on) and ensuring they are provided according to need is crucial. Reducing poverty for all groups across the population and protecting the most vulnerable is also necessary. And, we need to maximise the take-up of the flu vaccine amongst all those who are eligible. With a concerted effort, based on the best available evidence, I believe it is possible to reverse the trends we’ve highlighted, and create a fairer healthier Scotland for all.”
Jim McCormick, Associate Director (Scotland) of the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation, recently said:
“As a country we believe in protecting each other from harm. But today’s findings show our record on tackling poverty and health inequalities in Scotland is unravelling. It cannot be right that someone's life expectancy is held back by where they live or how much money their family has.
“We have a duty to redesign the systems sweeping people into poverty. A rising tide of in-work poverty and high housing costs, combined with the benefits freeze, are making it harder for people to achieve a decent life. National and local government, employers and communities must all work together to take bold action to solve poverty."
To read the reports, please visit the ScotPHO website [external website]
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