Income and Poverty

Big change in health inequalities in England

  • Published: Dec 12, 2013
  • Author: Tom MacInnes
  • Category: Income and Poverty

Over the last decade, inequalities in life expectancy grew between England’s most deprived and less deprived areas. At the same time, the gap in life expectancy between men and women has fallen, to the point where the average male life expectancy is now as high as that of women in the most deprived areas.

Our Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion report covers a range of different topics, although our analysis of low income, work, and pay tends to dominate. We also look at the effects of poverty, and one of the most striking findings this year is on health inequalities.

There are a few different ways of measuring health inequalities – the likelihood of surviving past a certain age, say, or the chances of having a heart attack. Here, we’ll look at two – life expectancy and disability free life expectancy. The “inequality” part of this is measured by comparing outcomes in deprived areas to less deprived areas.  

The interactive below allows us to look at the changes in life expectancy and disability free life expectancy for men and women. By clicking the different buttons you can see the different combinations, and how they have changed over time. There are two graphs – the first one shows the actual life expectancies for men and women, across different areas. The second shows the inequality – the difference between the most deprived areas and other areas (the difference between the most deprived area and itself is obviously zero). 

To view this graph on a mobile click here

There are a few things to point out. Firstly, and obviously, people in more deprived areas have lower life expectancies those in less deprived areas. Male life expectancy in the least deprived fifth of areas is 81.8, compared to 73.6 in the most deprived fifth. For women, the figures are 84.9 and 79.1 respectively.

Secondly, these inequalities have grown – male life expectancy is now 8.2 years higher in the least deprived than the most deprived areas, up from 7.8 years at the start of the last decade. For women, the gap is 5.8 years, up from 5.2 years in 2001-2004.

On all these measures, the gap is bigger for disability free life expectancy. A man in the least deprived fifth of areas can expect 14.7 more years of disability free life than a man in the most deprived fifth, up from 13.8 a few years ago.

But while these inequalities grow, the gap between men and women is falling. Male average life expectancy is now 79.1. This is 3.7 years less than the female average, but at the start of the 2000s this gap was 4.2 years. What this means that male average life expectancy is now the same as life expectancy for women in the most deprived areas. Gender is now not the main determinant of life expectancy – deprivation is.

This is, quietly, a huge shift, and the result of any number of changes in changes in society more generally, from the types of jobs people do to the hours they work to the way that health services are delivered to changes in people’s behaviour. As such, it makes health inequalities quite hard to tackle. But such inequalities seem like the ultimate manifestation of the unfairness of poverty – that by being poor you are destined to enjoy fewer years of life and even fewer of those will be free from disability.

One final point. The Office for National Statistics sent out a consultation document earlier in the year on discontinuing some routinely published statistics, due to cuts in its budget. These statistics were among those that could be discontinued. So, we have a growing problem of health inequality in this country, and soon we may well know nothing about it.  

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