Life expectancy in many communities in England was declining even before the pandemic, according to new figures.
From 2014 until 2019 life expectancy went down in almost one in five communities for women, and one in nine communities for men, Imperial College London (ICL) researchers have found.
The study, published in The Lancet Public Health, is the first to analyse longevity trends in ultra-fine detail which, its authors said in a statement, could identify where life expectancy declined with greater precision than previously.
The new study analysed all deaths in England for all years from 2002-2019, amounting to more than 8.6 million records, and assigned them to the community where each person lived at the time of their death.
There were 6,791 local communities examined and the researchers assessed life expectancy trends over time for each of these for men and women.
It tracked life expectancy in communities of around 8,000 people, with other research typically based on much larger areas containing some 140,000 subjects.
The ICL researchers found communities with the lowest life expectancy – below 70 and 75 years for men and women, respectively – were typically situated in urban areas in the North of England.
Communities with the lowest life expectancy were typically located in urban areas in the North, including Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Blackpool. Communities with the highest life expectancies were often based in London and the surrounding Home Counties.
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 due to the pandemic, the new research shows that life expectancy was declining in many communities years before the pandemic began.
The study’s senior author, Professor Majid Ezzati, from ICL’s School of Public Health, 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, and signals ongoing policy failures to tackle poverty and provide adequate social support and healthcare.”
The researchers concluded that urgent action must be taken to stop the deterioration and improve health in disadvantaged communities.
Prof Ezzati said: “The post-Covid ‘Build Back Better’ agenda can create an opportunity for better health, but it currently does not focus on equity, and the resources allocated to ‘levelling up’ agenda are too little to address these concerning trends.
“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.”