Public-sector austerity and winter flu have had a negative impact on life expectancy, leaving the UK lagging behind other wealthy nations, a new study has found.
Out of 16 countries, the UK, Spain and Germany performed worst, according to the Longevity Science Panel. The panel of experts, set up by insurer Legal & General to monitor trends in population life expectancy, found that more people were dying than would be expected if earlier trends had continued.
Women were particularly badly affected, with slower-than-expected improvements in mortality rates across 14 countries during 2011-15, compared with just eight countries where the same was true for men. The report said the gender differences were “remarkable”, adding: “This observation is consistent with suggestions that austerity measures in response to the 2008 recession, and excess winter deaths such as the unusually high 2014-15 winter deaths, have adversely affected mortality trends.”
It said austerity and flu deaths would exacerbate existing trends in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
“Disadvantaged groups may be impacted more, increasing their mortality rates disproportionally such that overall mortality improvements are stalled. As women are notably affected more than men in our analyses, we suggest that austerity has disproportionately impacted women in these countries.”
The argument that austerity in the UK had affected women more than men was backed up, it said, by House of Commons Library research in 2017, which found that 86 per cent of the burden of spending cuts since 2010 had fallen on women. The UK, the US, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Germany and Sweden all saw slower improvements between 2011 and 2015 compared with the preceding decade.
Panel member Professor Debora Price, from the University of Manchester, said: “The gender issues highlighted by this report are very concerning and we need urgently to understand what is driving these. We know that austerity policies have fallen mostly on women – could this be part of the explanation for higher-than-expected deaths?”
Prof Steven Haberman, from Cass Business School, said: “Within the UK, there is also worrying evidence of widening gaps between the trends for the better-off sections of society compared to the more deprived.
“We should expect continuing volatility in mortality rates as the population ages, and with the increasing likelihood of more extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold snaps.”
Between 1991 and 2011, life expectancy at birth for males in England and Wales grew by almost five years and by more than four years for women. In 2015, a sharp spike in the number of deaths, especially among older people, resulted in an unprecedented fall in life expectancy in England and across several European countries.
In Scandinavia, where improvements were better than expected, “these countries were less affected by austerity and were among the five countries least affected by the 2014-15 excess winter deaths. So, our results are consistent with the suggestion that austerity and excess winter deaths are linked to the recent slowdown in mortality improvement.”