Inequalities in life expectancy greater than at any point since the 1920s

New research published today in the British Medical Journal reveals inequalities in life expectancy are greater than at any point since the 1920s.

In February the Marmot Review reported that there remain huge health inequalities in England’s regions. This is reflected most starkly in life expectancy figures, showing a difference of seven years in average life expectancy between the poorest and most affluent regions.

New research published today in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) compounds the review’s conclusion, finding inequalities in life expectancy greater than at any point since the 1920s.

The Marmot Review did not look simply at regional differences. They took into account, also, occupational status. What they found was not only a much lower mortality rate for managerial and professional workers, but also that inequalities within regions based on occupational status are greatest in the poorest regions.

Highly-paid workers in the south, therefore, have a slightly lower mortality rate than highly-paid workers in the north, but this inequality increases as you go down the income scale.

According to the latest data, whereby workers in routine occupations in the south-west have a mortality rate (between the ages of 25 and 64) of around 400 per 100,000 people, the same figure for the north-east is around 700. Income makes a huge difference to life expectancy, and this impact is compounded by the relative influence of the area in which you live.

Today’s publication, based on research by academics Danny Dorling, Bethan Thomas and George Davey Smith, adds to the Marmot analysis, showing inequalities in mortality rates between regions were larger in 2007 (in England, Scotland and Wales) than at any point since the 1920s – the decade of the Great Depression and mass unemployment. Having studied parliamentary constituencies and local authority areas rather than regions, they find that for every 100 deaths before the age of 65 in the 10 most affluent areas between 1999 and 2007, there were 212 deaths in the 10 poorest areas.

Clearly, this analysis is a damning indictment of the Labour government’s record in office. It may also be an indictment of its political nous. Ironically, at the time of the publication of the Marmot Review in February, Professor David Hunter bemoaned that “there are few votes in health inequalities”.

Yet further research by Danny Dorling – this time in collaboration with Gerry McCartney and Chick Collins – published in the BMJ earlier this month shows that had had health inequalities received more attention by Labour, it may still be in office. Crudely, earlier deaths were more likely to occur in Labour-supporting areas, and therefore “the legacy of new Labour was such that the Tories had many more of their supporters still around to mobilise”.

Depressingly, there are signs that the newly elected government may be about to exacerbate the inequality. The research published today predicts that many of the factors which have created inequalities in morbidity are likely to accelerate rather than attenuate – at a time when the government plans to fasten the pace at which the state pension age will increase, and when the Financial Times predicts that spending cuts will hit the poorest hardest – as the government has already admitted.

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