Despite being one of the largest economies in the world, the United Kingdom is lagging behind many less wealthy European counterparts when it comes to one key area: life expectancy.
While this has been known for some time now, the extent of this issue has found new urgency due to a startling analysis by Public Health England, which has shown that women in the UK live shorter lives than the average EU counterpart. In Spain, for example, which has the highest rate of life expectancy in Europe, the estimated lifespanis 86.3 years. In the UK, the estimate drops to just 83 years.
Overall, the UK comes it at 17th place out of 28 nations. UK men rank a little better – although their life expectancy remains shorter than women – in 10th place at 79.4 years, with the top ranking being Italy, whose men live an average of 81 years.
While some might argue that such a middle of the pack ranking doesn’t sound too bad, the fact is that we are punching far below our weight for a country so prosperous.
That’s because a country’s wealth has a lot to do with its health and thus the estimated lifespan of its citizens. It might be a rather cruel fact of life, but a fact it remains nonetheless. This is why the data is so shocking, as wealth is such a big indicator of life expectancy.
It is, of course, not the only factor, as some may be cultural. If, for example, it is more culturally acceptable to smoke in one country than another country, that would have an impact on its residents’ life expectancy regardless of wealth. Public policy also has the potential to have an impact. If, for example, there were two countries with equal amounts of wealth, but one spent a great deal more on health care, it would not be a surprise to find that country had a higher life expectancy.
So, what’s the best way of showing how big an impact wealth alone can have?
Socioeconomic Contributors to Life Expectancy
Perhaps the best way is to look at poor and rich areas of England itself because, while it may be near impossible to account for every factor, this is probably as close as you can get. To use our previous examples, it limits cultural gaps, and public policy would remain the same.
In another report by Public HealthEngland from this year, it was found that people in the richest areas of the country have 19 more years of good health on average than someone from the poorest parts of the country. Men in the wealthiest areas of the UK, such asKensington and Chelsea can expect to live for 83.4 years, while men in Worthing are around the UK average at 79.2 years and those in Glasgow City are expected to live just 73.4 years.
Reviewing the life expectancy of women in the European Union – while the numbers don’t paint quite as clear a picture as the UK in terms of life expectancy conforming with the richest and poorest areas – it is clear that a general pattern emerges. When we look at the bottom of the life expectancy graph, the countries with the lowest expectancies – Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia – are also among the poorest. As a country’s life expectancy increases, so too does generally its wealth. The UK, however, presents an anomaly.
A fair assessment of this data would be that there are other quite significant non-economic factors at play to counteract the usually reliable use of wealth as an indicator in our case. The most obvious answer to this is that we are making worse choices for our health than other countries That would explain why a poorer country can have a better life expectancy than a richer one, as its residents may be making better lifestyle choices.
One of the most obvious examples is poor diet and obesity. The fact is that some countries with less money than the UK and fewer resources manage to be significantly healthier in this regard. Another example is our habits when it comes to alcohol consumption and smoking. Regardless of why, as a culture, many of us have such unhealthy habits and the fact is that it is impacting our quality of life and our life expectancies.
What is clear is that it is not a simple case of being richer making you live longer, and that is evidenced by the fact that, as a nation, we have managed to negatively defy this trend.
Mental Health as a Contributing Factor to Life Expectancy
Socioeconomic factors can also intertwine with other issues. A recent study published in the journal Counselling and Psychotherapy Research has highlighted a link between living in poverty and mental health issues, with those from impoverished backgrounds being less likely to start treatment and less likely to successfully recover.
Mental health is another major contributing factor when it comes to life expectancy. A government report this year showed that women’s life expectancy has been stalled due to a rise in dementia. That is proof of mental health having a direct, calculable impact on life expectancy.
Furthermore, Oxford researchers have shown that serious mental illness can reduce life expectancy by 10 to 20 years, the equivalent or worse than heavy smoking. That’s why your mental health isn’t just as important as your physical health, it’s part of it.
The same steps that are effective in improving mental health also have the potential to positively impact our life expectancies, further demonstrating the relationship between the two. For example, ground-breaking research from the University of Texas at Dallas found that those who keep an active mind and stay busy have better-functioning brains in older age.
The Effects of Attitude and Activity on Life Expectancy
Further evidence of the connection between a healthy mind, better mental health and, therefore, longer life expectancy comes from a study conducted by researchers at the UniversityCollege London, along with USA universities Princeton and Stony Brook. While not conclusive, the study did show that older people who reported that they had a greater sense of purpose, through having a hobby for example, lived longer than those who said they had little sense of purpose.
This is also further cemented by a 2016 study in the Journal of Epidemiology which concluded that their findings suggest that having hobbies and a purpose in life may do more than just extend longevity – it could also mean a healthy life expectancy among older community-dwelling adults.
The feelings and beliefs we gain from keeping an active mind and gaining a purpose in life through our hobbies can in turn contribute to our life expectancy as well. A healthy attitude towards ourselves can have a positive impact on our overall health, according to a study conducted by Stanford University. In this case, participants who viewed themselves as being less active and healthy were more likely to suffer a premature death, regardless of how active they were in reality.
The good news, therefore, is that we can choose to make healthier lifestyle choices, from our diets and bad habits to our attitudes and hobbies. By taking personal steps, we can improve our overall physical and mental health and therefore our life expectancies as a nation.
The Steps That Melrose Takes
At Melrose, a happy, healthy and long life for each of our residents is our core focus. With a registered nurse on duty 24-hours and specialist service providers on hand, we are well-equipped to meet the physical and mental needs of our residents. We also offer freshly cooked and healthy meals so all residents enjoy a delicious, balanced diet. And just like we ensure that our residents are getting the nutrition they need, we make sure they get the mental stimulation they need too.
Our calendar of activities includes everything from exercise classes to puzzles and flower arranging, to keep both body and mind active. Computer use allows our residents to be involved with technology, while 1-2-1 activities such as knitting, sketching, painting and drawing helps residents to participate in purposeful activities where they are constantly improving and getting creative with items, which they can keep or gift to their loved ones. By enjoying fun meaningful activity, as well as the possibility for real growth and achievements, our residents can lead long and happy lives.