In the previous instalment of this series, I looked at wealth inequality in the UK and how we ranked the 7th worst in terms of income inequality of all the EU member states.  Given that the UK government, Gordon Brown to be specific, has warned that Scotland’s rapidly aging population is a “pensioner time bomb”, in this issue I will look at inequalities in life expectancy across the UK, where Scotland sits in relation to our neighbours and how wealth inequality affects this.

So, first of all, what do we mean when we say health inequality?  Broadly speaking, it refers to access to quality health care, the length of time people are healthy in their lives and how long they can expect to live.  It should be obvious that these are linked to each other, but their link to wealth should surely be minimum in a country with a National Health Service, the purpose of which is to ensure the best of healthcare for everyone in the country.

We’ll start with life expectancy.  A recent report from the Office of National Statistics for England and Wales found that life expectancy from birth for males was at its highest in East Dorset, at 82.9 years and its lowest in Blackpool at 74 years, while for females life expectancy was highest in Purbeck at 86.6 years and lowest in Manchester where the female life expectancy was 79.5.  Life expectancy at 65 was highest for males in Harrow (85.9 years) and females in Camden (88.3 years) and lowest for males in in Manchester (80.8 years) and for females in Blaenau Gwent (83.7 years).  What’s more, the report showed a north-south divide with people in northern areas living shorter lives than those in the south.  Indeed 28% of local areas in the East, 49% in the South East and 28% in the South West were in the top 5th for life expectancy, but no areas in the North East or Wales fell into this group.

This report covered England and Wales and found a north-south divide, but what if we look further north? Well straight off the bat, people in Scotland can expect live shorter lives than in the rest of the UK.  In 2012, the average life expectancy at 65 in Scotland was 76.9 years for males and 80.9 years for females, compared with the UK average of 78.9 years for males and 82.7 years for females.  From birth, life expectancy is the highest it has ever been according to the National Record of Scotland, being 80.7 years for females and 76.5 years for males, but even this record figure is still below the UK average. When we start to look at where Scottish regions sit within the UK a rather more worrying pattern appears; the trend of decreasing life expectancy as we go North continues.  It turns out that of the 10 regions with the worst life expectancy, Scottish local authorities take the top 2 places and 6 of the 10 on the table, and none of the top 10 places with the highest life expectancy (you can find out the life-expectancy in your area here).

Life_expectancy_females Life_expectancy_males

The top spot, or the bottom spot more accurately, goes to Glasgow, which has a life expectancy among males of just 72.6 years, with females living just 78.5 years.  The most shocking figure is that only 75% of males and 85% of females born in Glasgow are expected to reach their 65th birthday, so most men born in Glasgow will not get to enjoy retirement. Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire are the only places in the UK where female babies are not expected to even live to the national average for males. These regions take in around 1.4m of Scotland’s roughly 5m people, meaning 25% of the population of Scotland, mostly around the greater Glasgow area, are living in areas with the lowest life expectancy in all of the UK.  Looking broadly at the UK including the Scotland figures, 72% of Scottish areas, compared with 36% in Wales and 19% in Ireland are in the 20% of areas with the lowest life expectancy.

But it’s not all bad news.  Life expectancy in Scotland is increasing faster than the rest of the UK, with the number of elderly in Scotland increasing by half a million in the next 20 years.  So it may mean that Scotland will catch up to the rest of the UK in the future and shed its “sick man of Europe” image.  However, a primary concern is over how healthy people are in their retirement.  More unhealthy pensioners causes undue pressure on the NHS and in turn, taxpayers.  This can be captured by a metric known as Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE).  However, there is more bad news for Scotland in that the amount of their lives spent “healthy” is lower than in the rest of the UK, particularly for males and on an international stage Scotland’s males again fare badly compared to European nations, though it’s important to note that direct comparison figures are tricky for this measure due to different measurements scales in different countries.

So, what has driven this low life expectancy?  The weather?  Our diet? Out attitude towards exercise? Our love of a tipple?  Actually, 1 factor seems to play a key role in determining life expectancy: deprivation. Deprivation as measured by employment and income at local authority level, geographical socioeconomic status or parents occupation have been shown to be powerful predictors of life expectancy.  While it’s difficult to compare deprivation across the 4 UK countries due to the different metrics used to measure deprivations, looking at child poverty as a measure of deprivation compared to life expectancy does indeed show some rather striking overlaps.


So it seems that life expectancy across the UK is unfairly distributed, with a familiar north-south divide being prominent and particularly acute north of the border.  While this trend is changing in Scotland, with the number of elderly rising sharply upwards and life expectancy closing in on our Southern Neighbours, health in old age seems to be lagging behind.  A key predictor of life-expectancy is deprivation and we have already seen in the previous post how wealth is disproportionately distributed in the UK, with the north fairing worse than the south. Given the persistent divide in wealth inequality between the north and south and the resulting imbalance in poverty between the two, solving the discrepancies in life expectancy may indeed be an unsurmountable issue.  As we saw in the previous post, the devolved policies to tackle wealth inequality have seen Scotland do slightly better than those in Northern England, but the powers to affect real change lie in Westminster, where there is little evidence of momentum to tackling wealth inequality in the UK. Without this momentum it seems that the problems of deprivation and low life expectancy will persist in the UK, leaving those in the North with several fewer years to enjoy.

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