Mortality rates in the UK: why are improvements in life expectancy slowing down?

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The issue

Life expectancy in the UK has improved steadily over the past century; public health measures – such as childhood immunisation and health screening – medical advances – for example, in the treatment of heart disease and cancer – and lifestyle changes – including reductions in the number of people who smoke – have helped life expectancy to increase from 55 to 78 for men and from 59 to 82 for women between 1920 and 2010. Since then, however, the rate of improvement has slowed significantly, and in 2015 life expectancy at birth actually fell, picking up again in 2016 and 2017.

There has been much debate about why improvements in mortality rates are slowing. Some attribute it to austerity-driven policies such as constraints on health and social care spending and cuts in welfare benefits, some to declining NHS performance, for example the number of delayed discharges from hospital. In some years, flu has played a role, particularly in excess deaths among older people, and others have noted that many European countries show similar patterns.

With life expectancy lower and improvements weaker in the UK than in many European countries, we wanted to establish what's happening, why and what can be done to reverse these trends. 

What we did

We offered advice on a Health Foundation-funded piece of work by the London School of Economics. It investigated mortality trends in the UK and the potential causes of the slowing of improvements.

Analyses by the Office for National Statistics and Public Health England show that a slowdown in improvements in mortality from cardiovascular diseases is a significant contributor to the slowdown in improvements in life expectancy overall. Jointly with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we convened an international workshop in Paris in November 2019 to examine recent trends in cardiovascular diseases mortality in the EU and other high-income OECD countries, and the potential causes of the slowdown in improvements seen in several countries.

Key milestones

  • The final report, Mortality and life expectancy trends in the UK, was published in November 2019 and can be found on the Health Foundation website.
  • The working paper, Trends in life expectancy in EU and other OECD countries, can be found on the OECD website.
  • Our joint report with the OECD, Is cardiovascular disease slowing improvements in life expectancy?, can be read here
  • For more on this topic, please read Veena's blog.

Project leads

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Veena Raleigh

Senior fellow, The King's Fund

Louise Marshall

Senior public health fellow, Health Foundation

Professor Mike Murphy

Professor of Demography, LSE