A study by Imperial College London researchers published in The Lancet also uncovered a 27-year gap in life expectancy between men living in Kensington and Chelsea and those in Blackpool.
In the five years before the pandemic (2014-2019) life expectancy went down in almost one in five communities for women, and one in nine communities for men, according to the new study published in The Lancet Public Health journal and funded by the Wellcome Trust, Imperial College London, the Medical Research Council, Health Data Research UK and the National Institute of Health Research.
The study of 8.6 million death records in almost 7,000 different local communities found that 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.
The region with the lowest life expectancy for women has a life expectancy of 74.7 years and is the Hunslet & Stourton area of Leeds.
An Imperial College spokesperson said other parts of the city and the North more generally had also been affected.
"Taken over the entire time from 2002 to 2019, the biggest life expectancy decline seen for women was a loss of three years for an area of Leeds (from 78.7 to 75.6 years), and for men was of 0.4 years in a part of Blackpool (from 68.7 to 68.3 years). There were also startling reversals in life expectancies for women in a number of communities in Yorkshire and The Humber over this time.
"The researchers note that the regions where life expectancy declines occurred often already had lower life expectancy, and high levels of poverty, unemployment, and low education.
"In comparison, between 2002 and 2019, life expectancy increases of nine years or more were seen for men and women in some parts of central and north London.
"These trends created stark geographical differences. In 2019, there was about a 20-year gap in life expectancy for women living in communities with the highest and lowest life expectancies (one region of Camden had a life expectancy of 95.4 years, compared to a community in Leeds with a life expectancy of 74.7 years).
"For men, the gap was 27 years (life expectancy in one area within Kensington and Chelsea was 95.3 years, compared to 68.3 years in a part of Blackpool).
"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."
Senior author Professor Majid Ezzati from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, 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 health care.”
Lead author Theo Rashid from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London said: “These results mirror an earlier trend in the USA – which also saw life expectancy declines prior to the pandemic.
"In both England and the USA, life expectancy declines are associated with unemployment and insecure employment following deindustrialisation, compounded by reductions in social and welfare support, and reduced funding for local governments. These factors had larger effects in the North of England than in London and Southern parts of the country.
“These changes impact life expectancy because they are associated with poorer nutrition and housing, riskier behaviours, and more restricted health care services, all of which lead to worse health and premature deaths.
“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.”
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