Analysis: Statistics fail to disguise a very serious condition

THE General Register Office for Scotland released information relating to so-called “vital events” – mainly for the number of births, deaths and marriages – for the year 2011.

One change highlighted was that there were 306 fewer deaths in 2011 compared to 2010.

This resulted in the total number of deaths for 2011 being 53,611.

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Coincidentally this total is in fact the lowest number of deaths since 1855, the year Scotland began to systematically compile death statistics. I must admit, I am shaking my head about the significance of such a statement.

The population of Scotland in 1855 was around 3 million. The current population of Scotland is 5.3 million.

Is it good to have the same number of deaths as a population that is 40 per cent smaller? Is it bad? The answer to this is neither.

Comparing Scotland of 1855 with Scotland of 2011 is like comparing apples to oranges. The probability of dying at any age was much higher in 1855, with life expectancy at birth being probably not much higher than 40-45.

The current level of life expectancy is about 80 for women and 76 for men. In 1855 the population was also much younger.

More worrying is the real mortality problem. Life expectancy is improving in Scotland – as a population we are living “on average” longer.

However, when we compare ourselves to other rich countries we are severe under-achievers.

Life expectancy at any age for both men and women is considerably lower than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is more similar to the much poorer East European countries such as Poland, Czech Republic and Slovenia. There is no evidence that we are catching up.

Our label of “sick man of Europe’ is sticking.

• Robert E Wright is professor of economics at the University of Strathclyde