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Life expectancy in England isn't falling – but we're reaching an upper limit

Today’s lead story in The Independent contains the shocking revelation that life expectancy for elderly women isn’t rising, as we’d come to expect in our ultra-developed society: in some areas, in fact, it appears to be falling. An email sent from the director of public health in Blackburn with Darwen, an area in Lancashire, warned that the over-85s in the area are “no longer living longer”, and ONS figures show that female life expectancy has fallen slightly in recent years. 

The sender warned that cuts to adult social care, which now rarely extends beyond care homes, could be partly to blame. According to the Association of Directors of Adult Social Serices, in 2011, 72 per cent of councils only offered care to adults with “substantial or critical” needs (usually in care homes); by September 2014, this figure has already risen to 89 per cent. 

We’ve had a look at the ONS’s county-level life expectancy data for women over 65 (The Independent used data for the over-85s, but the ONS doesn’t break this set down by region) to see whether we really are going backwards when it comes to living longer.

1. Female life expectancy for those over 65 is only falling in five counties.

Life expectancy did fall last year for this age group in some areas of England. However, whether or not that fall was actually significant is another question. 

First, some explanation of the data. The figures on life expectancy are estimated by the ONS over a three year period, and the most recent release covers 2010-2013. When you compare the figures before that (2009-2012), only five counties actually showed a fall in life expectancy, and four of these only saw a fall of 0.1 years, the smallest unit the ONS uses for these figures.

Rounding could effect the results a great deal here: there could be counties where life expectancy has fallen a little bit, but not quite enough to be rounded up to a fall of 0.1. Equally, these counties may actually have shown a fall of 0.06 years (that’s roughly three weeks), and still be flagged up. 

And there’s another issue: the ONS says it’s confident enough in its data that the true figure could lie either 5 per cent higher or 5 per cent lower than the quoted figure. Five per cent of 20 years is 1 year – so a fall of 0.1 years (about 40 days) isn’t particularly significant.

2. But they’re flattening out across the board.

More interestingly than the scattered declines is a general flattening out of female life expectancy. Take the south east region, where no counties showed a drop in life expectancy at 65 last year. But many showed no rise, or had seen a drop the previous year:

Apart from in Buckinghamshire and West Sussex, most of these counties have flattened out since 2010. Look at the picture across all counties since 2010, in fact, and the upward trend of the last half century is a lot less visible. 

3. There’s a gender difference. 

Male life expectancy is only falling in one county, so on the face of it, they seem to be faring better than women. Overall, though, female life expectancy is far higher than male: in 2013, the average male life expectancy at 65 across all counties was 18.9 years; for women it was 21.4. This chart compares the averages across the country since 2001:

As you can see, the leveling effect on female life expectancy since 2010 doesn’t appear on the male graph. 

There are several possible explanations for this. Firstly, women, as they’re likely to live longer, may end up living alone, so a lack of extra support from the cash-strapped health service since 2010 could make a difference: they could have a fall or get sick, and it would take longer for anyone to realise. 

There’s also the possibility that we simply can’t live beyond a certain age without massive advances in anti-aging research, and women in developed countries are reaching that point. But that’s an investigation for another day.

4. Health services could be playing a part. 

Female life expectancy among older people appears to be plateauing – but that doesn’t mean that larger declines in certain regions aren’t significant. The data shows that Gloucestershire has shown the greatest fall in life expectancies, both male and female: it’s the only place where female life expectancies in the 65+ range fell by 0.2 years, and the only county where male life expectancy fell at all.

The levelling out and then decline across both genders since 2010 is striking, especially when you compare it to the cross-county average graph above. 

So what happened in 2010? One possibility is the phenomenon identified in a report from the trade union, Union, published in January 2014. The report listed Gloucestershire at the top of a list of counties hit hardest by budget cuts under the coalition government: in all, the county has faced £150m worth of funding cuts since 2010.

As a result, health services seem to be suffering. A few days ago, the county’s hospitals reported a “major incident”, which basically means “we can’t deal with the number of people turning up at our hospital”. County-funded adult care visits for vulnerable older people, meanwhile, have been cut to 15 minutes daily. And in the county’s 2014-15 budget, leaders have agreed to a £3.3bn cut in adult services.

Andrew Gravells, cabinet member for older people, promised that “frontline services” wouldn’t be affected, and that “nobody in Gloucestershire needs to apologise for getting old”. That may be true, but cutting yet more adult services in a county that’s seen the biggest drop in life expectancy in the country may be a little unwise. 

Overall, however, it doesn’t seem that life expectancy for older people in England is dropping in any significant way. Instead, we seem to be reaching an upper limit in terms of life length, which is bringing the rapid increases of the past fifty years to a standstill. Whether that’s down to biology or public health cuts isn’t clear; it may even be both.
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