Where do people live longest in the UK – and why?
Does your postcode really affect how long you might live? Do we need to move home to live longer? Or can we stay and find ways to improve our longevity?
Where do people live longest in the UK?
People usually live longer in more affluent areas. That’s the bottom line from the 2011 UK census statistics.
- We can look at men or women, statistics taken from life expectancy at birth or from the age of 65. Whatever we choose the verdict is pretty much the same.
- East Dorset (home to Sandbanks, the millionaire’s peninsula), Chiltern in Buckinghamshire, South Cambridgeshire, Harrow (north-west London) and Kensington and Chelsea (west London) feature in the top ten places for longevity, whatever the measure.
- In each case, average life expectancy is at least 82 for men and 85 for women.
Where is life expectancy shortest?
Here the reverse applies. Whatever measure we choose, parts of Scotland have the lowest life expectancy, alongside Manchester and Blackpool in North West England i.e less affluent parts of the UK.
- Glasgow has a particularly low average life expectancy – just 72.6 years for men and 78.5 for women (from birth). Studies into the health of Glasgow’s population show greater deprivation than in any other city in Scotland.
- If we consider healthy life expectancy (the number of years people live in good health) the contrast is even greater. For instance men in affluent Richmond upon Thames can expect to enjoy an average of 15 more years of good health than their counterparts in less affluent Manchester. While women in Richmond upon Thames can expect to enjoy an average of 18 more years of good health than their counterparts in Tower Hamlets.
Why are there such differences in life expectancy?
Here are some of the answers that have been suggested:
- If you’re well off financially you can afford to buy things that might keep you healthy – from fresh fruit and vegetables to gym membership. Whereas if you have a lower income you are less likely to have enough to spend on these options.
- People in deprived areas seem more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol and become obese – all health risks. For example in Dorset, a generally affluent area, only 18% of people smoke – but in more deprived areas of Dorset this figure rises to 25%.
- Smoking, alcohol and excess food all cost money. So why do people in deprived areas sometimes spend so much on things that are bad for them? Some studies suggest they are possibly more stressed due to their situation and see smoking, alcohol and comfort eating as ways of managing that stress.
This appears to be supported by the 2014 Health Survey of England.
This found that 17% of the poorest women took antidepressants compared with 7% of the richest.
- This links with the observation that social inequality can cause ill health. Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s extensive research for his book Status Syndrome (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004) concluded that lower status and less control over our working lives increases stress, offers less opportunity for social participation and therefore increases the risk of illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease.
This in turn correlates with how long people tend to live, depending on their occupation. For example teachers and nurses tend to live longer than plumbers, even though some plumbers may earn more than them, suggesting social status is a factor.
- Since the 1950’s the decline of heavy industry in the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has caused a major loss of employment in these areas. For instance North East England has twice as many people claiming out-of-work benefit (18.4% in 2010) as those in the South East. This is likely to cause loss of both status and income and to exacerbate stress.
- There could also be reverse causation. If someone is ill they are less likely to be able to work, so less likely to be well off.
- Could climate make a difference? The south of England gets more sunshine than the north, including Scotland. Dorset, in particular, has a unique microclimate and is one of the sunniest places in the UK. Sunshine is the main natural source of Vitamin D. This could be important because Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with a range of illnesses - although it isn’t yet clear whether Vitamin D deficiency is actually causing the illnesses.
So should we all move to the south of England?
This isn’t a realistic option, even if we all wanted to. It may not be a wise move either. Moving somewhere where you don’t know anyone can be lonely and isolating. Studies have shown that this increases the risk of mortality in both men and women, even after underlying health problems are taken into account.
And living in an affluent area doesn’t guarantee a long life. It just increases the chances that you’ll be following a healthier lifestyle.
What can we do wherever we live?
Fortunately, there are a range of things we can do to increase our chances of living longer, in good health, whatever our postcode. For example:
- Don’t smoke, don’t binge drink, eat a healthy diet and take regular exercise. This could add ten years to your life.
- Take advantage of any educational opportunities available in your adult life, even if you didn’t do well at school. This seems to have health benefits.
- Maintain and develop strong social networks, with family or friends. Some studies suggest this has a protective effect on health.
- Volunteer - There are likely to be opportunities to volunteer wherever you live and some studies suggest this can help maintain mental health and improve life expectancy.
Where we live seems to influence how long we might live. How affluent or deprived the area seems to be particularly important. However, wherever we live there are five things we can do to improve our chances of living a longer and healthier life:
- Don’t smoke, binge drink or overeat
- Exercise regularly
- Take advantage of educational opportunities throughout life
- Maintain and build strong social networks
Reviewed and updated by Clare Sawyer, May 2016. Next review date April 2020.