Decades-long drop in life expectancy leaves the North more exposed to Covid

Life expectancy dropped by up to three years in areas of the North in the 17 years before the pandemic, leaving communities more vulnerable to Covid, a new report has suggested.

Imperial College London found that between 2010 and 2014, longevity began declining for women in one in 20 English communities before speeding up to one in five between 2014 and 2019.

Likewise for men, in the five years before the pandemic, one in nine communities saw a fall in life expectancy.

Researchers found that many of the worst affected areas were in the urban North of England, such as parts of Leeds, where female life expectancy fell from 78.7 years to 75.6 years between 2002 and 2019.

The biggest drop for men was in Blackpool, where longevity dropped from 68.7 years to 68.3 years. 

Yorkshire and the Humber also saw worrying declines, while many areas of the South in contrast gained lifespan.

Women live 20 years longer in affluent areas

The report showed that by 2019, there was about a 20-year gap in life expectancy for women living in communities with the highest and lowest life expectancies.

One region of Camden, north London, had a life expectancy of 95.4 years for women, compared with a community in Leeds with a life expectancy of 74.7 years.

For men, the gap was 27 years, with life expectancy in one area of Kensington and Chelsea at 95.3 years, compared to 68.3 years in a part of Blackpool.

Although recent data from the Office for National Statistics found that life expectancy for men in the UK had fallen for the first time in 40 years because of the pandemic, the research showed that life expectancy was declining in many communities years before the pandemic began, and largely in areas which also suffered worse during Covid.

Unemployment levels among over-50s are still 30pc higher than before the pandemic

Professor Majid Ezzati, from the school of public health at Imperial College London, and the report’s senior author, said: “There has always been an impression in the UK that everyone’s health is improving, even if not at the same pace. These data show that longevity has been getting worse for years in large parts of England.  

“Declines in life expectancy used to be rare in wealthy countries like the UK, and happened when there were major adversities like wars and pandemics. For such declines to be seen in ‘normal times’ before the pandemic is alarming.”

Concerns over protecting the vulnerable

Theo Rashid, the report’s lead author also from Imperial College London, said: “Although this study looked at the period until 2019, and we cannot assume these trends followed through the Covid-19 pandemic, a system that cannot protect lives in normal times inevitably struggles to protect people during a pandemic.

“We had limited options for delivering care in the community when the hospitals were overwhelmed; and those who lost their jobs struggled to eat healthily and took up risky behaviours in the pandemic, as they had done before it.”

The study analysed all deaths in England for all years from 2002 to 2019, amounting to more than 8.6 million death records, and assigned them to the community where each person lived at the time of their death and drilled down into 6,791 communities of 8,000 people.

The researchers noted that the regions where life expectancy declines occurred often already had lower life expectancy, as well as high levels of poverty, unemployment and low education.

In comparison, between 2002 and 2019, life expectancy increases of nine years or more were seen for men and women in some parts of central and north London.

Prof Ezzati added: “To level up health, the Government must make significant investments in people, communities and health services to first reverse this deterioration of health in so many communities.”

A recent report from the Northern Health Science Alliance found that people living in the North had a 17 per cent higher mortality rate due to Covid-19 than the rest of England, with about two thirds of the difference caused by higher deprivation and worse pre-pandemic health.

The North saw 10 per cent more hospital beds occupied by Covid patients and residents faced 41 more days of harsh restrictions than the rest of the country. 

The research was published in the journal The Lancet Public Health.

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