The Healthy Life Expectancy Gap

A well-established fact in health research is the steep social gradient present in health outcomes. Not only do the rich have better health outcomes, and live longer, than the poor, they also enjoy better health than those in the middle, who in turn enjoy better health than those at the bottom. In fact, as you move up the income spectrum, health outcomes steadily improve.

Today’s release from the ONS on healthy life expectancy shows just how steep this gradient is. Healthy life expectancy refers to the number of years of “good” health someone can expect to enjoy, but this number varies wildly dependent on the affluence or deprivation of the area someone is born in. A woman living in a neighbourhood classed as being within the most deprived 10 per cent of England is likely to live 79.1 years but only 52.1 years in good health. A woman living in the least deprived 10 per cent meanwhile is likely to live 86.1 years with 71.4 years in good health. That’s a pretty staggering gap in expected “good” health of over 19 years, and it’s similar when looking at men.

The difference is stark when looking at regions too. A man born in the South East is likely to experience 65.9 years of expected good health; a man born in the North East, just 59.7 years.

The temptation for many is to blame this on ‘lifestyle choices’, to dismiss this vast gulf in health inequality as a result of poor choices on diet and exercise. The problem is that there is very little evidence to support this.

What we do know, however, is that countries like the UK, who suffer from extreme levels of economic inequality, also suffer from more unequal and worse overall health outcomes.

The UK is one of the most unequal countries outside of the developing world, and we know this damages our health, our society and our economy. As the rungs on the ladder have stretched further and further apart, social binds have weakened, with greater stress placed on people all along the income spectrum – with the greatest stress falling on those at the bottom.

Most of us recognise the pernicious effects of inequality, it’s why 82% of Brits think inequality has gone too far.  But if we want to give everyone the chance of a long and healthy life, not just those born on the right side of the tracks, we need concrete action from government and politicians to reduce our extreme levels of inequality.

John Hood, Media and Communications Manager