England’s richest people are living for a decade longer than the poorest, and the life expectancy gap between them has widened to “a growing chasm”, research has revealed.
The difference in expected lifespan between the wealthiest and poorest areas has more than doubled since the early 2000s, an analysis of official data by the King’s Fund shows.
“There is a growing chasm in health inequalities revealed by the data,” said Veena Raleigh, a fellow at the thinktank who specialises in the stark differentials in rich and poor people’s health.
“Our analysis shows that life expectancy has continued to increase in wealthier areas but has virtually stagnated in deprived areas in the north with the result that the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest parts of the country has grown by almost two-and-a-half years over the last two decades.”
The analysis underlines the scale of the challenge facing the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who in a recent keynote speech in Blackpool on “levelling-up” in health, pledged to tackle “the disease of disparity” – dramatic differences in outcomes based on geography, ethnicity and income.
For example, in well-off Westminster male life expectancy rose from 77.3 to 84.7 years between 2001-03 and 2018-20 – a jump of 7.4 years. But men in deprived Blackpool only saw their expected longevity increase over the same period from 72 to 74.1 years, a rise of only 2.1 years. So overall the gap in life expectancy widened from 5.3 to 10.7 years in less than 20 years.
Raleigh found the same pattern for women in the two places when she examined Office for National Statistics (ONS) data. While life expectancy shot up for women in Westminster from 82.3 to 87.1 years, among those in Blackpool it only edged up from 78.4 to 79 years, a rise of just 0.6 years. That means that the difference in expected lifespan more than doubled from 3.9 to 8.1 years.
Covid has exacerbated the north-south divide, as well as the “deprivation divide”, in life expectancy, Raleigh added. In 2001-03 the gap was widest – at 8.2 years – between Hart in Hampshire and Manchester. But it is now the 10.7-year differential between Westminster and Blackpool. Similarly, the biggest gap in female life expectancy has widened from 6.6 years to the 8.9-year differential between women in Kensington and Chelsea in London and Blackpool.
London is experiencing significant rises in life expectancy, despite having high deprivation, large minority ethnic populations and reeling from the impact of Covid. That could be because it has a younger population with healthier lifestyles, better access to and quality of NHS care, with older, more unwell people moving out and being replaced by younger, healthier people, Raleigh said.
Her findings come after the latest data from the ONS, released last month, showed that Covid had led to the first fall in male life expectancy in the UK since records began 40 years ago. A boy born today is expected to live to 79, down from the 79.2 years when the ONS looked at life expectancy in 2015-17. Female life expectancy remains unchanged since then, with girls born today expected to live for 82.9 years, despite the pandemic.
In a report last week the Longevity Science Panel, a group of doctors, statisticians and NHS leaders, found that male and female life expectancy fell by 1.3 years and 0.9 years respectively in 2020 as a direct result of coronavirus.
Possible further new variants of the disease, the impact of long Covid and the delayed diagnosis and treatment caused by the huge backlog of NHS care could yet affect people’s expected lifespans, the experts said.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “Covid-19 has exposed fractures and inequalities within our health and care system, and in many places the pandemic has deepened them. This government is committed to levelling up from the pandemic and the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will drive the mission to tackle health inequalities to ensure everyone has the chance to live longer and healthier lives.”