The Health Foundation says government must produce a credible strategy to bring UK life chances in line with other comparable countries


The Health Foundation has revealed that life expectancy for women living in the poorest 10% of areas in England is lower than overall life expectancy in any OECD country, except for Mexico.

Women in the poorest 10% of areas in England can expect to live on average 78.7 years – significantly below the average of 83.2 years for the whole of England and less than the overall life expectancy for women in countries including Colombia (79.8 years), Latvia (79.7 years) and Hungary (79.6 years), as well as others. In Mexico, which has the lowest life expectancy at birth of any OECD country, women live on average 77.9 years.

In contrast, women living in the richest 10% of areas in England can expect to live on average 86.4 years – higher than overall life expectancy for women in any OECD country, except Japan which has the highest female life expectancy for all OECD countries (87.3 years).

The Health Foundation says the figures illustrate the extent of health inequalities in England, where the poorest can expect to live significantly shorter and less healthy lives than their richer counterparts. The gap in life expectancy between women in the richest and poorest areas of the country is 7.7 years. Analysis of OECD data by IPPR has previously shown that the UK has some of the most severe regional health inequalities of developed countries.

The Health Foundation’s analysis comes as the government is due to publish a white paper on ‘health disparities’, currently expected in early Summer 2022. A pledge to increase ‘healthy life expectancy’ by five years and reduce the gap between the healthiest and least healthy local authorities was announced in February this year as part of the ‘levelling up’ agenda. However, the independent charity warns that the government’s strategy for improving health has so far failed to grasp the scale of the challenge and that – based on pre-pandemic trends – it will take 192 years to achieve that increase.

The Health Foundation also highlights that the rising cost of living threatens to further widen the health gap between rich and poor. It notes that the pandemic has hit the finances of many poorer families and that rising prices will force increasing numbers to choose between going without essentials that are vital to living healthy lives – such as heating and food – or being driven into problem debt.

A Director of Health at the Health Foundation, said:

‘When OECD countries are ranked by life expectancy, the UK comes in 25th – a somewhat disappointing showing for the world’s 5th largest economy. However, an even more concerning picture emerges when we look at the gap between the rich and poor. The stark reality in the UK is that the poorest can expect to live shorter and less healthy lives than their richer counterparts.

‘The UK government has committed to addressing declining life expectancy and this has been described as a core part of the levelling up agenda. However, the government has so far failed to acknowledge the mountain it needs to climb to bring life chances in the UK in line with other comparable countries. Investing in people’s health is an investment in the economy. For many people, poor health is a significant barrier to work and training. The economic impact of lost output and health costs associated with poor health adds up – these are estimated to cost the UK economy around £100bn a year.

‘If we are to see progress, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the government’s approach, from a focus on people’s individual responsibility and choices towards actively creating the social and economic conditions that enable them to live healthier lives. This means providing secure jobs, adequate incomes, decent housing and high-quality education. To achieve this, improving health should be made an explicit objective of every major policy decision. Otherwise, the gap between rich and poor will further widen and ‘levelling up’ will remain little more than a slogan.’