Lifestyle and poverty to blame for falling life expectancy

Picture: John Devlin
Picture: John Devlin
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For Gemma Collings, the difference in lifestyle between Scotland and England became apparent soon after she moved to Glasgow from Lancaster.

“I drink a lot more since I moved up. I eat much more fried stuff now,” laughs the 23-year-old, while having a cigarette outside a branch of Greggs on the city’s Buchanan Street.

Earlier this week, official figures from the National Records of Scotland showed that life expectancy north of the Border has fallen for the first time in 35 years.

Historically Scotland has always had the lowest life expectancy of any part of the UK and the statistics reinforced this case, with the nation falling further behind England.

The figures show that males born in Scotland between 2015 and 2017 can expect to live until the age of 77, while women born over the same period have a life expectancy of 81.1 years.

Although the change is very slight – shortening the average life by just over one month – the reversal of a long standing trend has made politicians sit up and take notice.

For decades people’s lives have been getting longer, not shorter. Since 1982, life expectancy has increased by 7.9 years for men and 5.8 years for women in Scotland.

For Gemma, who works in auditing, the heavy drinking and smoking lifestyle of Scots is the stand-out difference from the rest of the UK.

She believes only major social change will help.“I don’t think they’re going to change it with small measures on junk food,” she says as her friend emerges from the bakers clutching a couple of steaming pasties in a paper bag.

She is referring to the Scottish Government’s plans to ban supermarkets from running tempting buy-one-get-one-free offers on unhealthy foods such as sweets, biscuits, crisps, cakes and sugary drinks.

According to an action plan published in July, around a fifth of the average Scottish person’s daily calorie intake comes from so-called “discretionary foods” with little or no nutritional value.

In a nearby shopping centre, lifelong friends Mairi Harvey, 68, and Lynn Gray, 69, are chatting away as they decide where to go for lunch.

Both retired teachers, they believe the problem in Scotland is linked to poverty, with its roots in education and diet.

“I was making dinner last night and I had the water from the carrots and my head still thinks: ‘That should be going into soup not going down the sink’,” Lynn says.

“A lot of younger people wouldn’t think that. I do think fast food outlets are to blame a lot for what’s happening, the way they offer these pizzas on buy-one-get-one-free plus a whole thing of garlic bread. That’s not healthy, is it?”

Mairi argues that as life expectancy starts from birth, parents of the next generation have a responsibility to quit smoking, cut down on drinking and keep their weight down.

“There are a lot of obese children,” she adds. “My grandchildren are like skelfs [splinters] and very active, but I go to the school gates and there are a lot who are coming out who are overweight.”

Lynn interjects: “But then if people are on a low income or can’t afford to feed their children they’re going to go for pizzas and cheap food to fill them up.

“They’re not going to go for Jamie Oliver cooking.”