The sustained decline (into its third year now) of the life expectancy of those living in the USA has made a lot of headlines in the last couple of years. It has also been the subject of a number of blogs by us here at Demography is Destiny, in particular we have looked at the opioid crisis and the increased mortality of middle class white men.
Now there is some disturbing news out of the United Kingdom that raises the question: is it about to follow the USA’s example? According to CNN life expectancy in the UK as a whole stalled from 2015 to 2017 at 79.2 years for males and 82.9 years for females. However, in the smaller countries of the UK the life expectancy is actually on the decline. In Scotland and Wales the life expectancy at birth dropped by 0.1 years for both men and women. In Northern Ireland the life expectancy at birth for men also dropped by 0.1 years. While the same decline was recorded for Northern Ireland men aged 65.
These results are the worst recorded by the Office for National Statistics since the series was started at the beginning of the 1980s. The large increase in the number of deaths in England and Wales recently (the largest recorded increase since 1968 accorded in 2015) could be part of the reason for the overall UK numbers but cannot explain the Scottish or Northern Irish declines. While some experts are linking the increase in deaths to a failure to adequately support elder care in the UK, it should be noted that stagnating life expectancy rates are seen not only in the UK and the USA but also in Australia and Europe. Perhaps we are seeing the natural limit of life expectancy, after all they can’t rising indefinitely. But the UK’s life expectancy rate, if it has hit a ceiling, is much lower than Japan’s and parts of Europe. In Japan women are expected to live about four years longer than in the UK, while in Spain, Switzerland, France and Italy the female life expectancy rate is over 85 years. So why so much lower in the UK? Professor Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine gave some theories but few answers:
“We still do not know how much this is a result of direct health effects such as flu epidemics, how much is a result of social and economic factors, and how much is a failure to go on improving smoking cessation or other preventive measures.”