Austerity may to be blame for a sudden halt in improvements to Scottish life expectancy levels, which were already among the poorest in Western Europe, it has been claimed.
Scotland’s life expectancy rates are now on a par with those of former eastern bloc nations such as Estonia, Poland and Lithuania – and well behind those of Scandinavian nations, whose populations are among the healthiest in the world.
Scots men can now expect to live to 77.1 and women to 81.2, but the figures have stalled in recent years, official figures show. This has been the case across the UK, but the situation is particularly acute in Scotland, where life expectancy has always been lower.
There is also a major gap in life expectancy across Scotland, with men in Orkney likely to live seven years longer than men in Glasgow, according to figures from National Records for Scotland (NRS)
Labour leader Richard Leonard has hit out at the “unacceptable inequality” unmasked by the figures.
The situation has continued to improve across the rest of Europe and there are now fears that years of austerity politics in the UK could be among the possible reasons for the sudden halt after decades of post-war rises.
Sarah Wild, professor of epidemiology at Edinburgh University, said: “This might be something political and it’s something that I happen to agree with that austerity may well have a role in it.
“There was some staggering figure that life expectancy has improved pretty much every year for hundreds of years with the exceptions of when there are flu outbreaks and wars and things.
“This is a pretty exceptional thing that we’re seeing and the UK is different from at least other European countries.”
She added: “It’s probably social care that’s the large problem. Obviously as people get older they’ll get stuck in hospital with delayed discharges because there isn’t suitable social care and that’s one of the key things austerity has contributed to. There’s fuel poverty, when you look at the winter. Disability benefits are a more recent thing.”
The rise of diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes, may also be a factor, along with increasingly virulent strains of flu.
Scotland has always trailed behind the UK for life expectancy. The average male life expectancy north of the Border is 77.1 compared with 79.2 UK-wide.
Sweden tops the European table on 80.4. Scottish women can expect to live to 81.2, some way behind the UK figure of 82.9 and the European high of 85.8 in Spain.
Leonard said: “The unacceptable wealth inequalities in our society are driving poor health and lower life expectancies in Scotland. It simply is not right that poor quality housing and squeezed incomes are contributing to lower life expectancies.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it had “consistently opposed” Westminster austerity and was tackling poverty by promoting fair wages, support for families and better social environments.
He added: “We also expect to spend over £125 million in 2018-19 on mitigating the effects of UK government welfare policies and on measures to help protect those on low incomes.”