Gap in life expectancy between rich and poor shrinks, new report finds

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The gap in life expectancy between the richest 10 per cent and the poorest 10 per cent shrank by 2.5 years between 1999 and 2010, finds a new report by The King’s Fund published today. The report, which builds on Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s ground-breaking research into health inequalities, is the first time that the relationship between life expectancy and income has been analysed over time at this level of detail.

Populations in poorer areas tend to have worse health than populations in richer ones, but our research suggests that the gap in life expectancy narrowed from 6.9 years in 1999–2003 to 4.4 years in 2006–10. Average life expectancy across the whole of England increased during this period, but the fastest improvement was in areas with the highest levels of income deprivation.

The reasons behind this are complex. From the late 1990s to 2010, the Department of Health focused on reducing inequalities in health by targeting areas with particularly low life expectancy, providing additional support to their local NHS and encouraging greater uptake of treatments for conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol. However, wider factors impacting life expectancy also changed during this period: poverty in older people improved; unemployment remained low during most of this period; and, there were improvements in housing quality, particularly in the social rented sector.

The research also showed that life expectancy in some areas was unexpectedly high or low, even when accounting for other factors. For example, average life expectancy is higher in West London and lower in urban areas of the North West than the levels of deprivation and lifestyles in those parts of the country would predict.

Commenting on the findings, David Buck, Senior Fellow at The King's Fund, said:

‘It is welcome news that differences in life expectancy between rich and poor areas improved in the period up to 2010. The relationship between poverty and poor life expectancy has been known for some time. But how this relationship changes over time, and the role of other factors are less well understood. This period saw significant improvements in inequalities in general with low unemployment and improved housing, which are likely to have been factors in this improvement.

‘While the changes in the relationship between income and life expectancy is good news, it remains to be seen how the gap in life expectancy between the richest and the poorest will have been affected by the economic downturn, and the policy reaction to it, following the 2008 financial crisis. We believe our findings support and reinforce the case for a true cross-government approach to reducing inequalities in health, with NHS, local authority and central government policy more aligned than they currently are.’

Notes to editors

The report, Inequalities in life expectancy: changes over time and implications for policy, is available here.

The original Marmot Review, Fair society, healthy lives, was published in 2010. The report is available at: http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/resources-reports/fair-society-healthy-lives-the-marmot-review

The King's Fund is an independent charity working to improve health and health care in England. We help to shape policy and practice through research and analysis; develop individuals, teams and organisations; promote understanding of the health and social care system; and bring people together to learn, share knowledge and debate. Our vision is that the best possible care is available to all.