They say the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, but while taxes are readily measurable, your hour of death is generally less so. We can hazard a guess using our lifestyle choices and genetic history, but the Keith Richards of this world make this an uncertain exercise. The government and others often calculate projected life expectancies by using the hard facts from each of the country’s administrative areas. Which areas are the best and the worst? It may be time to swap your terraced house in Glasgow for a Kensington penthouse if it’s longevity you’re after.
"Since the 1980s, experts thought the increase in life expectancy would slow down and then stop, but forecasters have repeatedly been proved wrong."
Philippa Roxby Health expert, BBC
The closing gender gap
It stands to reason that those living in areas of lower social class, with lower incomes, worse health records and economic deprivation are generally put out of their misery sooner than their more affluent cousins. But there are some counterintuitive tricks to a longer life according to the data. For instance, strange though it may seem, working longer can actually help you live longer.
Traditionally, men haven’t lived as long as women, but life expectancy for men has increased at a slightly higher rate than for females in recent years, causing an overall narrowing of the gender gap. The simple fact is, we’re becoming more similar across the board – the ladies are putting away booze, fags and kebabs at levels approximating those of men, although both sexes are becoming more healthy in this regard. Women are also now well represented in even the most traditionally men-only jobs, which also tended to have an impact on life span.
Where we stand
The UK came 14th in a 2010 global UN list of life expectancies at birth. The average for men and women was 80.1 years, with the male average standing at 78.1 and females four years better off at 82.1. Japan was the global front runner with an average of 82.7, while Mozambique was 194th (last) at 39.2 years. The vast majority of the worst off countries in terms of life span were in sub-Saharan Africa.
Grim (reaper) up north
But which part of the UK has it worse in terms of mortality?
The Scottish, northern English and Irish fringes are statistically worse off, but Glasgow has been singled out as a city with particular problems. Men here have a life expectancy of 73.1 years, and women 78.9. But the reasons remain a mystery, because even when standardised to account for diet, economy, health and population, people in Glasgow are still dying younger.
A study by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health found that between 2003 and 2007 there were 4,500 more deaths in the city than might have been expected given the age and poverty of the population.
A recent article in the Economist said: “It is as if a malign vapour rises from the Clyde at night and settles in the lungs of sleeping Glaswegians.” Startling stuff, but most Glaswegians will probably tell you that the “malign vapour” is probably strongest over the east end, which suffers the majority of the city’s crime and economic deprivation.
Other areas of the UK with the lowest life expectancies include Hartlepool (men, 75.4: women 79.8), Western Isles (men, 73.5: women 82), West Dunbartonshire (men 73.6: women 78.3), Liverpool (men, 74.5: women 79.2), Belfast (men, 74.4: women 80.2) and Blackburn with Darwen Teaching (men 74.4: women 79.3). The areas with the highest include Kensington and Chelsea (men, 85.1: women 89.8); Westminster (men 83.8: women 86.7); East Dorset (men, 82: women 85.9); Richmond and Twickenham (men, 81: women 85.4); and Surrey (men, 80.5: women 84.1).
From these statistics it seems that people in the more affluent parts of the country can expect to live as long as an average of 10 years more than the poorest parts. Data like this can make decisions like countrywide legislation on retirement ages even more controversial, given that people in the poorest parts enjoy an average of 10 years less of their pension than those in the richest.
More bad news for those north of the Watford Gap is that the gap between the north and south life expectancies is widening all the time.
But who wants to live until they’re 100 if they’re in the hospital for much of their older life. The most recent figures for healthy life expectancy – the number of years a person can expect to spend in very good or good general health – were compiled by the Office of National Statistics in the summer.
In England healthy life expectancy for men rose to 64.4 between 2007 to 2010 and in Wales it rose to 63 years. But look out, men in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Men's healthy life expectancy here decreased from 61.2 to 59.8 years and from 60.7 to 59.2 years respectively. The usual suspects of poorer diet, increased smoking and drinking and greater economic deprivation were blamed.
Women’s healthy life expectancy meanwhile was calculated at 66.4 in England, 63 in Wales, 64.1 in Scotland and 61.9 years in Northern Ireland.
In the big scheme of things, our lot as a country is improving, and the more sensitive souls should not panic because life expectancy data for a whole city or region is rather a blunt tool. But on the other hand, perhaps you should be concerned – not because of when you might die, but what life might be like for those living in a society of increasingly elderly people.
The Office of National Statistics says around a third of babies born in 2012 in the UK are expected to survive to celebrate their 100th birthday. More than 95,000 people aged 65 in 2012 are expected to celebrate their 100th birthday in 2047, and the total number of centenarians is projected to rise from 14,500 in 2012 to 110,000 in 2035.
A scary thought, especially if you’re responsible for the health care business. Battered Mars bar anyone?
The world's lowest and highest life expectancies
According to the United nations the country's with the lowest life expectancies:
- Mozambique 38.3 39
- Swaziland 39.8 39.4
- Zambia 42.1 42.5
- Sierra Leone 41.0 44.1
- Lesotho 42.9 42.3
And the top 5 countries with the highest life expectancies:
- Japan 79.0 86.1
- Hong Kong 79.4 85.1
- Switzerland 80.0 84.2
- Israel 80.0 84.0
- Italy 79.4 84.5