New research shows that England and Wales saw the biggest reduction in life expectancy after the US between 2019-21, while the life expectancy of the poorest continues to drop

Overall life expectancy in England and Wales fell by 0.93 years during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, research from the United States has found. 

The report comes as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its data on life expectancy inequality, with men from the most deprived areas in England living 9.7 years fewer than their wealthier peers. For women, the gap between the richest and poorest was 7.9 years.

The US research looked at the change in life expectancy between 2019 and 2021, or during the first two years of the pandemic, comparing the United States with 19 peer countries. 

While the US experienced much larger declines in life expectancy than its economic peers, England and Wales saw the second biggest decrease. Life expectancy dropped during the pandemic from 81.71 years in 2019 to 80.43 in 2020 and 80.78 in 2021.

In Northern Ireland, the drop was from 80.92 years in 2019 to 79.83 in 2020 and 79.99 in 2021. Scotland, which has the lowest life expectancy in the UK, saw a change from 79.29 years in 2019 to 78.29 in 2020 and 78.43 in 2021.

In contrast, Norway, South Korea and New Zealand saw life expectancy increase during the time period.

The authors explained that “estimates of life expectancy help one compare how different countries have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, author of both Fair Society, Healthy Lives (The Marmot Review) and Health Equity in England: the Marmot Review 10 Years On, told Byline Times that “prior to the pandemic, health in England was in a poor state, relative to other rich countries”, but after 2010, “life expectancy improvement slowed markedly, health inequalities increased, and health of people living in the most deprived areas got worse”. 

“The pandemic further exposed these health inequalities and amplified them,” he said. “Poor management of the pandemic meant a bigger drop in life expectancy in England, in 2020, than was seen in other countries that managed the pandemic better.”

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Life Expectancy Inequality

While the US research reveals an overall decrease in life expectancy over the pandemic, the latest Office for National Statistics data shows that the health gap between rich and poor is growing.

A report on ‘Health State Life Expectancies by National Deprivation Deciles in England’ exposes how those living in the poorest regions of England die far younger than their wealthier peers – and have fewer healthy years. 

The ONS found that there have been “statistically significant increases” in the inequality in life expectancy, with men and women living in the most deprived areas of England seeing a significant decrease in life expectancy between 2015 to 2017 and 2018 to 2020. 

Those living in the most deprived areas saw the largest reduction in life expectancy. 

“These latest figures from ONS are a continuation of the trends”, said Sir Michael Marmot. “Between 2015-17 and 2018-20, life expectancy did not improve for men, overall, and actually declined for the most deprived 40% of the population. Among women, similarly, life expectancy declined for the most deprived 40% of the population, but there was some improvement for those living in less deprived areas.”

Men in the most deprived areas can now expect to live 9.7 years fewer than men in the least deprived regions – 73.5 years compared to 83.2 years. Women living in the most deprived areas have a life expectancy of 78.3 years, while wealthy women can expect to live until their mid-80s (86.3 years).

The gap between healthy life expectancy is even more concerning.

While women in wealthy regions on average enjoy good health until they are 70.7 years old; for women in the most deprived areas, healthy life expectancy is 51.9 years. This means that they endure poor health for an additional 20 years than their richer peers.

For men, the gap was 52.3 years to 70.5 years. Because people living in the most deprived areas die sooner, they spend a greater proportion of their life in poor health. 

​​As such, in 2018 to 2020, women living in the most deprived areas were expected to live less than two-thirds (66.3%) of their lives in good general health, compared with more than four-fifths (82.0%) in the least deprived areas.

Across all income groups there has been a decline in disability-free life expectancy – the time spent living without disability. 

Male disability-free life expectancy at birth in the most deprived areas was 17.6 years fewer than in the least deprived areas in 2018 to 2020. There were significant decreases in female disability-free life expectancy at birth in both deprived and less deprived areas between 2015 to 2017 and 2018 to 2020.

The data, Sir Michael Marmot said, is “chilling”.

Overall, he told Byline Times, “the figures are really shocking. They are telling us a great deal about how well society is functioning. If health is getting worse, then society’s needs are not being met”.

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