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 three years lower than England and two 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 seven 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
Men still have lower life expectancy than women, though this is changing, and those in higher socio-economic groups can expect to live longer. Because of the gender gap in life expectancy a group of older people which is predominantly female is emerging. Partially as a result, women are expected to experience more years of ill health.
- Men and women in the highest socio-economic group can expect to live up to 7 years longer than those in the lower socio-economic groups (based on life expectancy at birth).
- Women live around 4 years longer than men but the gap has been shrinking and is expected to shrink further over time.
- Black African women who are asylum seekers are estimated to have a mortality rate 7 times higher than for White women, partly due to problems in accessing maternal healthcare.
Infant mortality rates are higher among some ethnic groups than others.
- Black Caribbean and Pakistani babies are twice as likely to die in their first year than Bangladeshi or White British babies.
Some groups are more likely to be victims of homicide than others, particularly Black people and infants aged under 1.
While a large proportion of homicide victims are men, women are more likely than men to be killed by partners, ex-partners, or family members.
A large number of homicides can be attributed to identity-based hate.
- Ethnic minorities were the victims of around a quarter of homicides recorded in England and Wales between 2006/07 and 2008/09: just over half of these ethnic minority victims were Black.
- Infants under the age of 1 are more likely to be a victim of homicide than any other age group: one child aged under 16 died as a result of cruelty or violence each week in England and Wales in 2008/09 – two-thirds of them aged under five.
- In 2008/09, partner violence (including by ex-partners) accounted for 53% of female and 7% of male homicides in England and Wales. In the same year, partner violence (including by ex-partners) accounted for 46% of female and 7% of male homicides in Scotland.
- Over 70 homicides that occurred in England and Wales between 2007/08 and 2009/10 were charged as resulting from racially or religiously aggravated, transphobic or homophobic, or disability-related hate crimes.
Suicide overall has fallen, but is concentrated among certain groups. Suicide rates remain high among young men. Small-scale studies suggest that among some groups, including those who are carers, LGB and transgender people, self-harm and suicide may be relatively very high.
The background of abuse, drug-addiction and mental illness of many entering institutions such as prisons has led to an increased risk of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in such contexts.
- Three times as many men as women commit suicide, and rates are particularly high for younger men aged 25-44.
- Evidence suggests that both LGB and transgender people may have an increased risk of attempted suicide.
- Self-inflicted deaths (which include unintentional death for example through drug use) are more common among pre-sentence
- prisoners than across the rest of the prison population.
Rates of accidents appear to be declining over time, but some groups are much more likely to be involved in accidents than others.
- Almost all people killed at work are men: only four fatalities (out of 129) at work in 2008/09 were women.
- Children from ethnic minorities are up to twice as likely to be involved in road traffic accidents whilst walking or playing; children with hearing difficulties are 10 times as likely.
Geography plays an important role in life expectancy and the likelihood of committing suicide. In particular, Scotland has very poor outcomes.
- In England and Wales, men and women living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to commit suicide as those in the least deprived.
- Life expectancy in Scotland ranges from nearly 3 years lower than England at the widest point (life expectancy for men at birth), although the gap closes over the age range.
- Two and a half times more young men (25-34) commit suicide in Scotland than in England.
1. Hicks, J. and Allen, G. 1999. A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900. House of Commons Research Paper, 1999. Available at: //www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf Accessed 25/08/2010.
Last updated: 04 Oct 2017