‘Staggering’ link between literacy and life expectancy is revealed

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Children born into communities where people are likely to struggle with reading and writing live much shorter lives than their peers in more privileged areas, new research has found.

A study out today reveals a “staggering” gap in life expectancy between those living in communities at the highest and lowest risk of literacy problems.

Research by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) found that a boy growing up in a place most likely to have literacy problems has a life expectancy around 26 years shorter than a boy living somewhere that is among the least likely.

The report said: “The national gap in life expectancy between children from communities with the highest and lowest vulnerability to literacy problems in the country is staggering,”

The research calculated how at-risk each electoral ward in England was of having low literacy levels, based on factors like education, employment and income, and compared the information to official data on life expectancy.

It found that a boy born in Stockton Town Centre, in the tenth of electoral wards most at risk of literacy problems, had a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy from North Oxford, which is among the tenth least at risk of literacy issues. That was the largest gap for males.

A boy born in the ward of Manningham, Bradford, which has some of the worst literacy problems in the country, had a life expectancy of 72.1 years.

That is some 16.6 years shorter than a boy born in Bishop Monkton, Harrogate, which has some of the best literacy outcomes in the country.

National Literacy Trust director Jonathan Douglas said: “The relationship between health, socioeconomic factors and life expectancy is well established but this is the first time we’ve been able to see how literacy relates to longevity. The relationship is so deeply rooted that children growing up in communities with the most serious literacy problems in the country shockingly have life expectancies 26 years shorter than children from places with the fewest literacy problems.

“We now know that our efforts to improve the reading and writing skills of children from the poorest communities strike at the heart of inequalities that shorten life expectancy.”

The NLT studied new and existing evidence of links between literacy, life expectancy and health and economic factors.

Research found that people with poor literacy skills earned 12 per cent less than those with good literacy skills. Children born into low-income families lived 17 years shorter than children born into high-income families.

A separate study has also found that the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest communities in the UK is growing. A 60-year-old man living in the most advantaged fifth of neighbourhoods can expect to live five years longer than his counterparts in the most disadvantaged fifth. That has increased from 4.1 years in 2001, research by the Longevity Science Panel found.

Sixty-year-old women from the most advantaged fifth of neighbourhoods live 4.2 years longer than women of the same age from the poorest areas, up from 3.1 years in 2001.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Health inequality is a challenging and complex area, but we are committed to tackling this issue.

“Cancer survival rates are at a record high and smoking rates are at an all-time low, but we know there is still too much variation.”