LONDON (AP) — Life expectancy for English women in the most deprived communities outside London declined over the last 10 years and stalled a century-long trend toward longer lives, according to a report published Tuesday that suggests government austerity was were partly to blame for a widening health gap across England.
University College London epidemiology professor Michael Marmot, who led the research and directs the university’s Institute of Health Equity, described the findings about England’s “lost decade” as shocking. The damage to the population’s health and well-being from the failure to reduce economic health disparities is unprecedented, he said.
“The U.K. has been seen as a world leader in identifying and addressing health inequalities, but something dramatic is happening…,’’ Marmot said. “Put simply, if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving.”
Life expectancy for women in the most deprived areas of England fell by 0.3 years between 2010-12 and 2016-18, compared with an increase of about 0.5 years for those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, the report said. At the same time, child poverty increased, with 70% of children who are raised by unemployed single parents living in poverty.
Across England, life expectancy for men rose by about six months during the period to 79.6 years, while the figure for women increased by about four months to 83.2 years.
During the previous century, life expectancy generally improved by about one year every four years.
The report is a follow-up to an earlier review of health inequalities published in 2010 that was conducted at the request of the British government when it was led by the Labour Party.
While researchers cannot say definitively that cuts in government spending following the global financial crisis are to blame for widening health gaps, the data suggests a clear link, Marmot said.
“Austerity has taken a significant toll on equity and health, and it is likely to continue to do so,” he said. “If you ask me if that is the reason for the worsening health picture, I’d say it is highly likely that is responsible for the life expectancy flat-lining, people’s health deteriorating and the widening of health inequalities.”
Government cutbacks have led to the closure of children’s centers, education funding decreases, greater use of precarious employment practices such as zero-hour contracts, a shortage of affordable housing and a rise in homelessness, Marmot said.
He also noted that many people don’t have enough money to lead a healthy lifestyle and large numbers are forced to turn to food banks to feed their families.
“Austerity has adversely affected the social determinants that impact on health in the short-, medium- and long-term,’’ he said. “Austerity will cast a long shadow over the lives of the children born and growing up under its effects.’’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock responded by noting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has pledged to spend an additional 33.9 billion pounds ($44 billion) a year on the National Health Service.
“The prime minister has been very clear from his very first day in office that he is committed to leveling up the whole country,” ” Johnson spokesman James Slack said. “While life expectancy is increasing, we know that it isn’t for everyone, and so we must tackle the gaps that exist.”
The Labour Party’s spokesman on health issues, Jonathan Ashworth, described the report as a “devastating verdict on 10 years of austerity under the Conservatives.’’
‘’There is no greater social injustice than people dying sooner because of poverty and austerity,’’ he said. “Yet not only is life expectancy stalling for the first time in more than 100 years, shockingly, it is actually declining for the poorest 10% of women.”