The Department of Health has acknowledged that life expectancy at 75 – one of its corporate indicators – fell in 2012 for the first time in many years.
Meanwhile, provisional statistics suggest it may have fallen or remained the same in 2013, in an unusual break from a long term trend of year on year increases.
In July HSJ revealed national officials’ concerns about heightened death rates during 2012 and early 2013, sparking a major debate about the causes. At the time the DH and Public Health England blamed flu and cold weather during winter 2012-13. Some experts have suggested cuts to services such as social care could have been a cause.
The DH last month published an update on its “impact indicators”, which were chosen in 2013 to “assess the effects” of government policies.
The update records that life expectancy for women aged 75 fell from 13.2 years in 2011 to 13 in 2012 and said: “Life expectancy for women dropped in 2012, for the first time since 2003.”
Male life expectancy at 75 remained the same at 11.3. The document said: “Life expectancy for men did not increase in 2012, for the first time since 1999.”
The life expectancy calculation is based on mortality rates and population trends. The crude mortality rate for England and Wales – not adjusted for population age – rose from 8.6 per 1,000 people in 2011 to 8.8 in 2012.
The Office for National Statistics will not publish final mortality figures for 2013 for several months. However, HSJ used provisional figures to calculate that the year had about 7,380 more deaths than in 2012, and there may have been another small rise in the crude death rate in 2013, to 8.9 per 1,000 people. It would be the first time there have been two successive years of increase since the 1970s.
The crude death rate between the summer and the end of 2013 was similar to previous years.
The final life expectancy calculation will depend on final figures and analysis by the ONS.
Public Health England chief knowledge officer John Newton told HSJ the increase in the crude rate could be due simply to there being more older people, among whom death rates are higher, so it would be important to look at finalised age-adjusted mortality rates later this year.
He said an increasingly older population may also cause death rates to fluctuate more between years. However, he said, it was possible it would indicate the end of the long period of rising life expectancy.
“Life expectancy reflects what has happened in people’s lives, and these people [currently aged about 70] were born in wartime, [when] there were profound changes in diet. We have seen an unprecedented increase in life expectancy and it’s possible that is coming to an end,” he said.
“But we do also expect fluctuation. As we have an older population, the proportion of deaths that will fluctuate due to flu and cold weather is greater.”
Oxford University professor of geography Danny Dorling said: “The high numbers of excess deaths recorded in 2012 and early 2013 may be the result of a whole series of influences, but it is very hard to disassociate many of the likely candidates from the nature of austerity and the cuts which were occurring then and just before that period.
“If these excess deaths had been of a similar portion, even with smaller numbers, but among children or younger adults, it would almost certainly have aroused a public outcry.”
Liverpool University lecturer in applied public health Ben Barr said the consecutive years of increased mortality were “unusual, and whilst this may be random variation, other explanations should be explored. It would be particularly concerning if this was related to cuts in social care”.