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Life expectancy rises 'grinding to halt'

Posted on 18/07/2017 by

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Rising rates of life expectancy are grinding to a halt after more than 100 years of continuous progress, according to a leading health expert.

University College London expert Sir Michael Marmot said he was "deeply concerned" by the situation, calling it "historically highly unusual".

He said it was "entirely possible" austerity was to blame and said the issue needed looking at urgently.

But the government said its policies were not responsible.

The Department of Health said ministers were providing the necessary support and funding to ensure life expectancy "continues to increase".

How life expectancy rises have slowed

Using Office for National Statistics projections for babies born since 2000, Sir Michael, who has advised both the government and World Health Organization, showed the rate of increase in life expectancy had nearly halved since 2010.

Between 2000 and 2015, life expectancy at birth increased by one year every five years for women and by one year every 3.5 years for men.

But this compares to one year every 10 years for women and one for every six for men post-2010.

Sir Michael, who is director of the Institute of Health Equity at UCL, said this showed the growth in life expectancy was "pretty close to having ground to a halt".

He said that was "historically highly unusual" given the rising life expectancy seen over the past 100 years.

"I am deeply concerned with the levelling off, I expected it to keep getting better."

Is austerity to blame?

He said it was hard to draw firm conclusions about the cause.

But he said it was "entirely possible" austerity had played a role.

He explained social factors such as education, employment and working conditions and poverty all affected life expectancy by influencing lifestyles.

And as austerity was placing pressures on these, they may in turn be influencing life expectancy.

He also highlighted what he said was "miserly" funding settlements for the NHS and social care, which meant the quality of life for older people would have deteriorated and could well affect their life expectancy.

This was a particularly pressing issue given the numbers of people with dementia, although that increase in itself may also be playing a role in the levelling off.

Have we simply reached the outer limits of human life?

Sir Michael dismissed the idea that the slowing of life expectancy could be related to humans reaching the outer limit of how long they could live.

He said other countries, such as Hong Kong, had longer life expectancy than England and had continued to see consistent rises.

And he added it should be a "matter of urgency" to work out exactly what was behind the trend.

Other research has suggested there is much more scope for life expectancy to rise.

Last year scientists in the US concluded the absolute limit for human life was about 115.

'The government must act'

Alzheimer's Society chief executive Jeremy Hughes said Sir Michael was right to point the finger of blame at austerity.

"Too often we hear the consequences of inadequate, underfunded care - our investigation last year revealed people with dementia left in soiled sheets, becoming ill after eating out of date food, and ending up in costly hospital or care home admissions unnecessarily.

"The government has to act before the care system collapses entirely."

But a Department of Health spokesman said: "Just last week, the NHS was rated the number one health service in the world.

"Life expectancy continues to increase, with cancer survival rates at a record high whilst smoking rates are at an all-time low."

And he said investment was being made to ensure the ageing population was "well cared for" with the NHS budget having been increased since 2010 and extra money now being invested in social care.

Average life expectancy in England is currently 83 for women and 79.4 for men.

How do you improve your life expectancy?

The simple answer is to live healthily. That means eating well and exercising regularly.

Not smoking and drinking within safe limits is also important.

Prevention - in terms of immunisation and screening - plays a key role as does access to good health care when you are sick.

People throughout England, and the rest of the UK for that matter, have good access to these through the NHS.

And yet there are wide differences in life expectancy.

One of the places with the biggest gap in life expectancy - as has been widely reported following the Grenfell Tower fire - is Kensington and Chelsea in London.

This is because of so-called social determinants. These cover factors such as housing, education, working conditions and poverty.

Experts such as Sir Michael believe these are just as important, if not more, as anything else.

And what determines these? Wealth. The richest people in Kensington and Chelsea live 16 years longer than the poorest.

By Nick TriggleHealth correspondent