Heart disease & drugs behind life expectancy slowdown

Friday 19th July 2019

Slower improvements in heart disease survivability and drug-related deaths have been found to be key drivers behind a life expectancy slowdown in Scotland.

Life expectancy was improving ‘steadily’ from the early 1980s but changed ‘markedly’ in 2012 when it began to stall and then fall. 

Researchers believe this is down to the likelihood of death from heart disease not improving as quickly as it used to and increased drug-related deaths.

NHS Health Scotland is urging politicians to look at how unemployment, a lack of housing and access to education affect people’s health, as well as protecting funding for health and social care services.

One suggestion from the public health body is increasing the value of benefits to shield people from the health-scarring effects of poverty.

It comes as figures reveal nearly 1,200 Scots lost their lives to drugs since 2017 – the highest rate in Europe and three times that of the UK.

Previous UK-wide studies have suggested drug deaths, as well as Alzheimer’s and dementia, are some of the most important factors behind the life expectancy slowdown.

But the NHS and National Records of Scotland experts behind the report find ‘almost all causes of death, and all ages, have seen a negative change in the trend, with slowing improvements in heart disease and worsening drug related mortality being most important.’

Expectancy has steadily increased for the thirty years since 1980 when it was first recorded but stalled around 2013 and began to dip from 2015.

From 2000 to 2014, life expectancy increased by around 13 weeks every year but then slowed to less than one week a year for women and began to fall by a week every year for men.

Meanwhile, death rates among the poorest communities in Scotland began to increase.

The report’s authors say the reason for heart disease survivability not increasing at the rate it used is unclear.

Possible explanations include increases in obesity levels and a ‘deterioration’ in access to or the quality of health and social care services.

They also claim mental strain caused by ‘economic insecurity’ could be to blame.

Gerry McCartney of NHS Health Scotland’s public health observatory says a wider examination of public services is needed.

“Everyone should have the right to live a long, healthy life, no matter how rich or poor. It isn’t right that people in our poorest places are facing a shorter life expectancy when some of the causes of death are preventable. It’s a real concern that where you live and how much money you have affects your health and how long you live,” he says. 

“We need to look further at how the social security system and public services may be contributing to the trends in life expectancy we see here. But we also need to focus on employment, affordable housing and school costs so people are able to not only achieve a decent standard of life, but thrive.”