New data from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) has this month revealed a strong discrepancy in life expectancy between those living in Scotland’s wealthiest and poorest areas.
According to the NRS’ Annual Review of Demographic Trends, life expectancy in Scotland remains the lowest of the UK’s constituent countries across the period 2015-17, resting at 77 years for men and 81.1 for women.
This is in comparison to England, which enjoys the highest life expectancy in the UK, at 79.6 for men and 83.1 for women.
This two-year disparity demarcates an important emerging trend: life expectancy in Scotland is undeniably stalling.
Of Scotland’s 32 council areas across 2015-17, life expectancy is lowest in Glasgow City at 73.3 for men and 78.7 for women, in comparison to 80.5 and 83.7 respectively in East Renfrewshire, which enjoys Scotland’s highest estimate.
This means that at worst, certain Scottish boys born in 2018 can expect to live approximately seven years less than others.
This information alone is stark, its significance is only heightened when reading in context.
The 2016 Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) rated East Renfrewshire among Scotland’s most affluent areas.
Whilst more than half of the 100 most deprived areas in the country were found to be located within Glasgow.
This leads us to a worrying, yet well-worn conclusion: socioeconomic inequality bears direct influence over how long one can expect to live.
We might expect such a conclusion to be drawn from Victorian censuses that saw the working class routinely subjected to the perilous impact of their poor conditions, but the admission that it remains true in contemporary Scotland is a reality many shy away from.
Gerry McCartney, Head of Public Health for NHS Scotland, has addressed the issue by condemning the impact of austerity economics upon the basic human right to a healthy life.
However, a lack of clarity surrounding who exactly is responsible for ‘social health’ remains. Far less discourse is devoted to the root causes behind such a growing disparity – why is it that those in more affluent areas live longer?
Deprived cities have always experienced different health outcomes – this is a long-held fact. Nicola Sturgeon’s government has so far adopted token measures in addressing supposed cultural factors behind curtailed life expectancy.
In light of the World Health Organisation’s 2011 coining of the ‘Glasgow Effect’ (a term referencing stark health inequalities bounded by the deprivation index), is it right to consider Sturgeon’s May 2018 introduction of minimum pricing on Scottish alcohol a feckless and insulting reinforcement of a cultural trope or an example of credible pragmatism?
Its long-term impact remains to be seen, but one can’t help but wonder whether examining the path to alcoholism would be more effective than simply reducing access. Former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Harry Burns, has attributed lower life expectancy in more deprived areas to a sense of a fragmented society that encourages people to engage in ‘risk behaviours’ (drug-taking, alcohol abuse, etc.).
Yet Burns also ventures beyond such generalisation in alluding to the need to invest in ‘social capital’– essentially, to raise an individual’s stake in society so that they feel valued and consequently recognise the value of taking care of their health.
Nothing particularly revolutionary in terms of ideology here, rather a simple thought that is often overlooked in today’s target-driven political landscape.
In a famed 1972 speech, the late Glaswegian union leader Jimmy Reid acknowledged the impact of ‘alienation’ on ‘human well-being’ – for nearly half a century has social disassociation been a determining factor in Scottish health outcomes and yet comparatively little research has been done into integrating public health with social policy.
Only once this vital correlation has been widely recognised can Scotland move forward with its health policy and present a robust challenge to the life expectancies of other UK constituents.
Image: Joré Dirgélaité