“Ten thousand more people died in the first seven weeks of this year than would be expected, the biggest difference since the Second World War.
Loneliness, overstretched hospitals and the crumbling elderly care system could all be contributing to a sharp increase in deaths, which suggests that British life expectancy is about to start falling, academics say. They have called for an urgent investigation after the latest in a string of figures that show older people are dying earlier than expected.
Infant mortality has also risen, with dozens more babies dying in 2016 than the previous year.
After decades of rising life expectancy, progress has stalled in recent years in Britain, while it continues in many other countries. In January The Times revealed that in some struggling parts of the country life expectancy has dropped by a year since 2011.
Now provisional figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 93,990 people died in the first seven weeks of this year, up 12.4 per cent on the average for the previous five years, an extra 10,375 deaths. This is the biggest difference since 1940, when deaths were up by 16 per cent, and the fourth biggest since 1840, Danny Dorling, an Oxford professor who analysed the figures, said.
He said that it was quite remarkable, adding: “People have become a bit immune to this. Five years ago this would have got a lot more attention, this huge number of people dying.”
Writing in the BMJ, Professor Dorling linked the deaths to hospitals that were “struggling to cope” in winter as they were deluged by frail elderly patients with nowhere else to go. “It’s Alzheimer’s, dementia and so on, these are things people are dying of. It’s frail people. People are dying two or three years earlier than they would do.”
Such people may also be more isolated because bus services were reduced and relatives working longer hours during difficult economic times were unable to visit them, he speculated.
He insisted that flu and winter cold could not explain all the deaths and officials must look at deeper causes. Respiratory illness such as flu were responsible for 18.7 per cent of fatalities, barely up from 18.3 per cent in the same period last year. “It ain’t flu and it wasn’t flu before,” he said.
He wants the Commons health and social care committee to investigate, saying the government is “just not interested”.
Caroline Abrahams, of Age UK, said: “It is extremely worrying that more older people are dying during what was a relatively mild winter. Older people have felt the brunt of long-standing cuts to social care and stagnant funding for the NHS.”
Separate ONS figures yesterday showed that deaths of babies under one rose from 3.7 per 1,000 to 3.8 per 1,000 in 2016, the second year in a row they increased after decades of decline.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat former care minister, said: “The government must urgently examine the cause and what might be driving this disturbing reversal of historic falls in infant mortality. The fact that the NHS is under such strain may well be contributing to this.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are absolutely committed to helping people live long and healthy lives, which is why the NHS was given top priority in the autumn budget, with an extra £2.8 billion, on top of a planned £10 billion a year increase by 2020-21. Along with Public Health England, we will consider this.”
In the first 49 days of this year, an extra person died every seven minutes compared with the five years before. This is not a one-off, because deaths were also higher than normal last year after a jump in early 2015 (Chris Smyth writes).
Because so many older people are dying sooner than expected, life expectancy has stopped increasing. If this year’s trend continues, British lives will start to become shorter, something unprecedented in modern times. The growing chorus from academics demanding investigation deserves to be heeded, but finding the reason will not be easy. The issue goes far wider than the NHS and social care — people’s health is influenced by their jobs, homes and families.
Given the lack of certainty, the risk is that the data will simply become ammunition for political skirmishes about whether “austerity kills”. This makes ministers and the officials who report to them understandably wary of looking into what is happening.
But it was Theresa May who spoke of the “burning injustice” that the poor die earlier than the rich. This gap is growing. Her government should not be afraid of asking why.”
Source: The Times (pay wall)