Life expectancy flatlines across the West

Austerity to blame? This year England experienced no growth in life expectancy.

Rising rates of life expectancy are levelling out after more than 100 years of progress. But as fears grow of the consequences of an ageing population, shouldn’t we be happy about this?

Today there are over 900 million people in the world over the age of 60. Some have predicted that in 50 years’ time, Britain will have at least half a million people aged over 100.

But yesterday a leading health expert declared that rising rates of life expectancy in England were grinding to a halt. University College London expert Sir Michael Marmot said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation, calling it “historically highly unusual”.

Using Office for National Statistics projections for babies born since 2000, Marmot showed the rate of increase in life expectancy had nearly halved since 2010 in England. In the UK the life expectancy for men is 79, while for women it is 83.

He believes it is hard to to draw conclusions about the cause. But he said it was “entirely possible” that austerity had played a role, as it places pressure on factors such poverty and education which affect life expectancy.

This phenomenon is not unique to Britain. In the US, life expectancy actually declined in 2016. Rising fatalities from heart disease and stroke, diabetes, drug overdoses and accidents all contributed to lower life expectancy. Areas where lifespans were declining or flatlining tended to be the places where support for Donald Trump was highest during the presidential election.

It may simply be that we are reaching the absolute limits of human life, and that only enormous breakthroughs in the battle against, for example, cancer, would make life expectancy rise dramatically again.

Marmot dismissed this idea, however, using the example of Hong Kong, which has continued to see consistent rises.

But here’s the thing: most rich countries are ageing, and that presents huge difficulties. A shrinking working-age population has to work even harder to support an ever-growing group of dependents. Healthcare spending must increase. Retirement ages may rise. And many question whether it is really worth living well beyond your 100th birthday.

Is an ageing society a good thing?

Golden oldies

We are missing the crucial point here, say some: living a long time, on an individual level, is a very good thing. Research shows that old people are far more technologically savvy than young people give them credit for, and a growing number of old people can act as a balancing force in a society that is increasingly obsessed with youth.

But others believe an ageing society poses far more problems than it solves. Around the world, humans may be living longer than ever, but a 90-year-old is just as dependent now as he or she was 200 years ago. We should drop this obsession with living as long as possible and focus on enhancing people’s lives while they are in their prime.

You Decide

  1. Is an ageing society a good thing?
  2. How old do you want to be when you die?


  1. List five different ways a society can adapt to an ageing population.
  2. Research life expectancy in different countries. Why does it vary so much? What can be done to improve life expectancy in the developing world? Report your conclusions to your class.

Some People Say...

“It is inevitable that rich people will live longer than poor people.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That after 100 years of progress, life expectancy in the UK and the US is starting to decline. Most countries in the developed world face potential problems of an ageing population, with death rates and birth rates both falling. Therefore some believe that lower life expectancy could actually be good for the economy, as there are fewer people for the working-age population to support.
What do we not know?
Why exactly this is happening. Several theories have been suggested, from a lack of money for healthcare, persistent poverty among certain social groups and the notion that there just are not that many more breakthroughs that medicine can make, with many deadly diseases all but wiped out.

Word Watch

At least half a million people aged over 100
A report in 2011 found that 20-year-olds were three times more likely to live to 100 than their grandparents and twice as likely as their parents. A girl born in 2011 had a one-in-three chance of reaching 100 years and boys had a one-in-four chance.
Life expectancy for men
In almost every country in the world, women live longer than men. In some countries, women’s lives are as much as ten years longer than men’s. A number of factors contribute to this: men are more likely to drink, smoke and take drugs. They are more likely to be murdered and they are more likely to serve in the military.
Support for Donald Trump
The index for public health was an even greater indicator of voting for Donald Trump than being a non-college educated white voter, according to The Economist.
Hong Kong
Although it does not technically count as a country, Hong Kong has the highest life expectancy of anywhere in the world. The figure reached 84.0 years in 2015 surpassing Japan’s 83.7 years, with men at 81.2 years and women at 87.3 years.

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