In developed countries, the gender gap has long favoured women by one measure at least: life expectancy. Throughout the past 100 years, women have significantly outlived men, on whom war, heavy industry and cigarettes – among other things – have taken a heavier toll. But this gender gap is closing – and new statistical analysis of life expectancy in England and Wales since 1950 suggests that, by the year 2032, men can expect to live as long as women, with both sexes sharing an average life expectancy of 87.5 years. The study, led by Les Mayhew, professor of statistics at Cass Business School, calculated how long a sample of 100,000 people aged 30 would live if they experienced the average mortality rates for each ensuing year, projecting forward until the male and female life expectancy curves intersected.
There are some factors that explain the narrowing gap, according to Mayhew. “A general fall in tobacco and alcohol consumption has disproportionately benefited men, who tended to smoke and drink more than women. We’ve also made great strides in tackling heart disease, which is more prevalent in men,” Mayhew said. “And men are far more likely to engage in ‘high-risk’ behaviours, and far more likely to die in road accidents, which have fallen too.” The life expectancy gender gap appears to be closing faster than was previously thought: research published in 2015 by Imperial College had indicated it would narrow to 1.9 years by 2030. The UK as a whole has slightly lower lifespan averages, as life expectancy tends to be higher in England than the other constituent nations.
In the years immediately after 1950, women’s life expectancy increased faster than men’s in England and Wales, with the gender gap peaking in 1969 when women lived on average 5.68 years longer. Majid Ezzati, professor of global environmental health at Imperial College, said the gap could be attributed largely to social rather than biological factors: “It’s the existence of the gap that is unusual, rather than the narrowing. It’s a recent phenomenon which began in the 20th century.” In addition to the heavy male death tolls caused by two world wars, men started to smoke in large numbers before women did and women’s consumption never outpaced men’s. Male cigarette consumption peaked in the 1940s when tobacco industry figures revealed that more than two-thirds of men smoked. Female consumption peaked later, in the 1960s. As well as changing attitudes to cigarettes and alcohol, the loss of heavy industry jobs – statistically more dangerous in both the short- and long-term – also disproportionately affected men.
“As the [life expectancy] gap narrows, our understanding of what it means to be a man and a woman changes,” said Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the University of Oxford. “The difference between the genders also narrows because of the introduction of contraception and female entry into the labour market. But the really interesting thing is it’s a kind of reverse inequality: women have lived longer than men who are paid more throughout their lives and are structurally advantaged in any number of ways. We haven’t entirely worked out why that might be.”
Postcodes and poverty
While life expectancy is projected to improve for everybody in the coming decades, the rate of improvement varies significantly depending on where you live. The Cass analysis projects that by 2030, men in the most deprived areas of England and Wales will go on average die 8.8 years earlier than those in the least deprived. For women, the gap between rich and poor will be 7.3 years – with both these lifespan inequalities worsening from their current levels. The research made use of mortality rates after age 30 to exclude instances of early death, which are becoming increasingly unusual. But dying young is also much more likely if you’re from a poor background. “Early death will certainly become a rarer event, but higher mortality rates for younger ages will still be the norm in the most deprived decile in England and Wales, unless something radically changes,” Mayhew warned.
Even in wealthy areas, however, the rate of improvement in life expectancy appears to be slowing. In May, consultants at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicted that pension funds – which consider mortality rates when estimating future payouts – might be able to wipe £300bn off their deficits. “In the first decade of this century, there was a clear trend for improvements in life expectancy,” Raj Mody, global head of pensions with PwC, told the Financial Times. “Pension funds have typically been assuming this trend will continue when forecasting deficits. But over the last five years, that trend has changed, and there is a growing view that it is not just a blip.”
As life expectancy increases, the number of deaths per year tends to fall. Since 1980 the number of deaths has fallen for both men and women, but the decrease has been greater for men. However, in 2012 the number of deaths per year started to rise again, peaking at 529,655 in 2015 – an unprecedented increase of more than 28,000 deaths on the previous year. This was the biggest jump in percentage terms in almost half a century. The number of deaths in 2016 was down by 0.9% year-on-year, but still represented a significant increase from 2014. The Office of National Statistics believes the upturn in deaths might be because of an ageing population. “As people are tending to live longer, leading to the population increasing in both size and age over time, we may also expect the number of deaths to increase,” a 2016 report said. But some academics have attributed the slowdown in improvement to government spending cuts, particularly those affecting social care and the NHS. “There is no biological reason why life expectancy in Britain should level out rather than keep on improving. The UK is still some way behind Japan, for example,” said Mayhew. “But the improvement in life expectancy is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in an economic downturn with an ageing population,” Mayhew added. “Austerity in recent years has affected the supply of social care, for example, and this may have caused mortality to rise in some instances.”
Credit: Niamh McIntyre for The Guardian, 13 February 2018.