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

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Why we're doing this project

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 want to establish what's happening, why and what can be done to reverse these trends. 

What we're doing

We’re working with the Health Foundation to initiate a comprehensive investigation into mortality trends in the UK and the potential causes of the slowing of improvements. We’ll compare these with trends internationally and liaise with other agencies working in this area, including Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics. 

We hope this assessment will lead to a much better understanding of why improvements in mortality rates have slowed and enable appropriate action to reverse this and return to the steady improvements in life expectancy in the UK seen pre-2010. 

Partner organisations

We’re working in partnership with the Health Foundation on the research they have commissioned from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Key milestones

Provisional results will be available in autumn 2018, with a final report by April 2019.  

Project leads

  • Veena Raleigh, The King's Fund 
  • Louise Marshall, Health Foundation 
  • Professor Mike Murphy, LSE