A girl born at the start of the twentieth century had an average life expectancy of less than 50 years.¹ By contrast, the Office for National Statistics predicts that girls born in 2008 will live, on average, for more than 90 years. This remarkable increase is a testament to medical breakthroughs, changes in the British economy, and improvements in diet and housing that have revolutionised life over the past century.

Despite this progress, there remain significant differences between the life expectancies of different groups in modern Britain. In some cases, we do not know whether these differences are a result of innate genetic predispositions. In other cases, the evidence suggests that the differences in life expectancy tell a story about the cumulative impact of inequalities experienced by different groups. Meanwhile, more specific data about particular causes of early death suggest a failure on the part of the state to safeguard the lives of people from different groups equally.

Men’s life expectancy is lower than women’s, though the gap is narrowing very gradually over time.

Some studies suggest differences in life expectancy rates between ethnic minority groups. There is some evidence that some ethnic minority groups are more likely to die early from certain causes. Black people are more likely to be homicide victims than are members of other ethnic groups. A disproportionate number of people who die following contact with the police are also Black. Infant mortality is higher than average among Black Caribbean and Pakistani groups, although, by contrast, it is lower than average among Bangladeshi groups.

Some groups may be particularly susceptible to certain types of risks to life. Infants and young adults are the most likely of any age group to be the victims of murder or homicide. There is some evidence to suggest that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) and transgender people may be more likely than average to attempt suicide or to commit acts of self-harm. People with mental health conditions are more likely than those without to die during or following police custody.

There are differences in life expectancy between different parts of Britain. Life expectancy in Scotland ranges from 3 years lower than England and 2 years lower than Wales. Overall, more people die early in Scotland than in any other western European country.

Finally, there are significant differences in life expectancy between members of different socio-economic groups. Men in the highest socio-economic group can expect to live around 7 years longer than men in the lower groups. For women, the gap is similar. Evidence also suggests that people from lower socio-economic groups may be more susceptible to such risks to life as smoking-related cancers and suicide.

Significant findings and headline data

  1. Hicks, J. and Allen, G. 1999. A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900. House ofCommons Research Paper, 1999. Available at: // Accessed 25/08/2010.

Last Updated: 05 Oct 2010