By Lyndsey Hall
Life expectancy in the UK has stopped improving for the first time since 1982, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Women’s life expectancy from birth has stalled at 82.9 years, and for men it remains 79.2, the same figures for 2015-17. This is the first time life expectancy has failed to improve since records began, thirty-six years ago.
In some parts of the UK, life expectancy has even decreased. For both men and women in Scotland and Wales, it declined by more than one month. Men in Northern Ireland also saw a similar fall. For women in Northern Ireland, life expectancy at birth remains unchanged.
The ONS said the stalling of life expectancy was linked to a particularly high number of deaths from 2015 to 2017, which coincided with a bad flu season and excess winter deaths. Some academics have also argued that government austerity policies, such as cuts to social care budgets in England, must have played a part. However, ministers have said no such causation can be proved, although Public Health England has been asked to carry out a review of life expectancy trends. The ONS said there was “much ongoing debate” about the reasons behind the stall, and what direction the trend may take in the future.
The data also shows that the UK lags behind other leading countries for life expectancy, including Switzerland, Japan, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy. Of those countries, Switzerland was the nation with the longest life expectancy for men, at 81.5 years, and Japan for women, at a predicted 87 years.
Throughout the 20th Century, the UK experienced steady improvements in life expectancy at birth, resulting in a larger and older population. This has been attributed to healthier lifestyles, reduced smoking rates, and improvements in treating infectious illnesses and conditions such as heart disease. The population of people who are 90 or over continues to increase due to previous improvements in life expectancy going back many decades. The number of centenarians decreased slightly between 2016 and 2017, reflecting the low numbers of births during World War One, but the ONS said it was expected to continue to increase again from 2019.
Life expectancy has been going up by around two months per year every year since the 1980s, when records began, as fewer deaths due to smoking or heart problems were seen. But from 2011 that rate of improvement has been slowing, and we’re unsure about exactly what has caused this trend.