We may be living longer, but our extra years are marked by disability or long-term illness. Mark Crail reports on some surprising findings in the latest government statistics

Two decades of social change have added an extra four years to our lives. But, to adapt a phrase coined by former health secretary Virginia Bottomley in her Health of the Nation white paper, it has so far failed to add life to our years.

Government statistics published last week show that life expectancy is increasing by two years every decade. In 1976, men could expect to live to age 70; by 1996 it was 74.6. Women's life expectancy rose from 76.1 to 79.7.

Yet, according to an analysis by academics at Kent University for the Office for National Statistics, healthy life expectancy has remained virtually constant at around 59 years for men and 62 years for women.

The ONS's annual Social Trends report, published last week, comments gloomily: 'The extra years of life gained by the elderly may be extra years with a disability or long-standing illness, not extra years of healthy life.'

The increase in longevity is stunning, however. Social Trends editor Carol Summerfield pointed out at the launch: 'When my grandmother was born at the turn of the century she could have expected to live to the age of just 49.

'The combined effects of medical advances with better living conditions, nutrition and healthcare mean that in the space of just two generations life expectancy has increased by 30 years.

'My daughters, who were born in 1996, can expect to live past their 79th birthday,' Miss Summerfield said.

Much of the improvement has been due to a dramatic decline in infant mortality, a trend which the ONS says will continue into the early part of the 21st century.

During the 1940s, infant mortality fell sharply because of improved nutrition and living conditions and the use of antibiotics. Between 1970 and 1996, it fell by a further 66 per cent; a further 57 per cent fall is anticipated by 2021.

But a measure of the difficulties facing ministers attempting to set targets for reductions in health inequalities - a task the public health green paper, due shortly, will acknowledge is impossible - emerged at the launch.

Asked whether there had been class differences within the overall trend to a longer life expectancy, Ms Summerfield admitted the ONS did not know.

'We are told it is very, very complex and that there is no simple information we can use. But certainly, we will take that up and see if we can include it next year,' she promised.

Social Trends 28. The Stationery

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