England's Stalled Lifespans Spark Debate If Austerity to Blame

(Bloomberg) -- Lengthening lifespans are no longer something Britons can take for granted.

After more than a century of people in major industrialized economies enjoying increasingly long lives, those gains have begun flattening off in some European countries. Now data from the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics has underscored the reality, showing above-average numbers of deaths this year in England and adding fuel to the growing debate on whether government austerity measures are contributing to higher mortality rates.

England's Stalled Lifespans Spark Debate If Austerity to Blame

In the European Union, life expectancy fell “slightly” 2015, the first decline for the 28-country region since 2002, according to Eurostat. The phenomenon was evident in the majority of member states, including the U.K., although the bloc’s statistics office said it wasn’t clear if the trend would persist.

England's Stalled Lifespans Spark Debate If Austerity to Blame

In its November forecasts, the U.K.’s Office for Budget Responsibility said its population projections included a “large downward revision” in the number of adults above state pension age -- currently 65 years for men -- due to higher mortality rates. It now projects total deaths for this age group will average 502,000 a year, up from 476,000 previously.

The ONS report published Monday indicates that’s already starting to materialize, as deaths in England in the first nine months of 2017 exceeded the five-year average by some 15,100.

England's Stalled Lifespans Spark Debate If Austerity to Blame

Some say the U.K. government’s stringent cutbacks to spending on health and social care since the financial crisis are the root of the issue. The medical journal BMJ published a report last month saying austerity from 2011-2014 may be linked to 120,000 excess deaths in England.

Yet other countries such as Germany, France and Switzerland have also seen life expectancy gains fall short of trend rates in the past few years. British statisticians are open-minded about the explanation.

“There are probably a lot of factors: we have an aging population” and there is also the flu, which can cause upticks in some years such as 2015, said Annie Campbell, a senior researcher at the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics. However, “for the overall long-term pattern, more research will be needed before we can be sure what’s driving it.”

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