A report titled ‘An investigation into inequalities in adult lifespan’ has revealed that the gap between the rich and poor concerning life expectancy in the UK is expanding for the first time since 1870. This happened despite life expectancy itself having increased over the recent decades. According to the researchers, changes in lifestyle and poor health choices were the leading causes for this increased disparity and not lack of wealth.
The report was based on data from the Human Mortality Database, and conducted by Les Mayhew and David Smith from City University London in partnership with International Longevity Center (ILC-UK).
It was found that 5% of the men that had reached the age of 30 were going up to live an average of 96 years which is 33.3 years longer than the lowest 10%. This gap had increased by 1.7 years between 1993 and 2009. For women, the highest surviving age revealed was 98.2 years which is 31 years longer than the lowest but has balanced itself out since then. The authors proposed poor lifestyle choices were the main contributors of these results and that the wealthier people due to their education or exposure to the world are more concerned regarding their health and thus end up making more informed choices which do not result in negative health outcomes such as smoking, excessive drinking or a poor diet as opposed to the ones being made by men in lower socio-economic groups.
Sasson (2016) further confirms this by declaring that ‘the poorer groups are more likely to fall victim to the cumulative effects of decades of poor lifestyle and income inequality, reflecting the repercussions of a long succession of unhealthy behaviors’. This finding particularly applies to the men belonging from lower socio-economic groups. Authors of the study say, “They put themselves in harm’s way on average more than women do – they smoke more, drink more and there are periods in their lives when they partake in riskier activities.” Since the individuals belonging to the upper middle class have access to healthcare and can afford to live in neighborhoods free from pollution and opt for career choices involving other hazards, they ended up having a healthier lifestyle and did not indulge in unfavorable habits.
The researchers observed that this gap could be divided into certain eras or phases. They noticed that ‘from 1870 to 1939 the gap steadily closed’. The lead author of the study Mayhew comments on this by saying, “Everyone benefited from improvements in clean drinking water, better housing, higher incomes and better health.” This was also the time when mass vaccination and antibiotics had been introduced in the society reaping benefits for all. Smoking however started to take a turn for the worse after the 1920’s but reached its peak around 1948 with over 82% of the British male population consisting of smokers. The government took notice of this situation and imposed heavy taxes on the use of smoking and we soon saw a decline, with more and more people finding about the harmful effects of tobacco use and from 82%, only 21% of cigarette smokers were left. After 1950’s life expectancy continued to rise. However, other harmful lifestyle choices still persisted having negative effects on health. Excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet and lack of exercise are a few of these damaging choices. It’s interesting to note that earlier on more and more people died due to infectious diseases or accidents but due to the above mentioned choices, the society saw an outbreak of chronic diseases as well as mental health issues which the poor are unable to afford treatment for. It was after this period and due to all these reasons that the inequalities in lifespan started to rise and the gap widened further, until 1990 when the situation was at its worst.
These trends were compared to other countries as well and it was found that Italy and France have similar shifts in their life expectancy gaps with a few changes here and there. In England, life expectancy for both genders has risen but in France and Italy, the gender gap still exists even though women are better off with respect to life expectancy compared to men.
The government once again needs to take a step in and revise their laws and policies to make sure people from all walks of life, whether rich or poor should have equal access to healthcare facilities and do whatever they can to eliminate the huge gap that currently exists in income distribution. Sally Greengross, the Chief Executive of International Longevity Center UK (ILC-UK), says, “This trend is particularly worrying for society and policymakers must do more to begin to narrow this gap again. Preventing inequalities in ill health and disability must be a priority for policy action.” The more the society benefits, the more everyone benefits as a whole.