People in Britain are living longer. What’s the secret?

    16 September 2015

    People in Britain are living five years longer on average than they were in 1990, according to Public Health England. A report published in The Lancet found that average life expectancy has jumped from 75.9 to 81.3.

    Why are we living longer? One reason is that our roads are safer. But the biggest factor, as Figure 1 shows here, is that fewer people are dying early from heart attacks, strokes and other events caused by cardiovascular disease. Although there is still a long way to go, it’s one of the greatest health triumphs of the past few decades.

    Since 1960 the death rate from cardiovascular disease in Britain has dropped by nearly half. A similar trend has been seen in the United States and much of Europe.

    A 2004 study in Britain analysed the causes of the trend. In particular it looked at the decline in deaths from coronary heart disease. It found that nearly half (48 per cent) of the decline was down to fewer people smoking. The next biggest factor (42 per cent) was judged to be an improvement in treatments. A lowering of cholesterol and high blood pressure, meanwhile, accounted for 19 per cent of the change (9.5 per cent each).*

    Of course it’s not exactly a happy story. Coronary heart disease is still an extremely common cause of death and Britain’s mortality rate is higher than in Italy, Norway and Spain. Public health officials will say we shouldn’t complacent. But at least we have been heading in the right direction.

    * Those factors add up to more than 100 per cent. That is because the study takes into account negative population trends too. A rise in obesity and diabetes and a drop in physical activity reduced the impact of the positive trends (lower cholesterol, fewer people smoking) on the mortality rate by 13 per cent. H/T Jonathan Bagley, below.