Back in October, we shared news of the latest 2018-based population projections released by the Office for National Statistics, in which their assumptions on future life expectancies were further reduced.

While life expectancies are still expected to increase, the pace of improvement is slowing significantly. This, in turn, is affecting the ONS’s death forecasts. The new projections suggest that 6.4 million people will die in the UK over the ten years 2018 to 2028, an increase of 4% on the 2016-based figures.

So, what’s behind the slowdown?

A new report by the Health Foundation explains that previous gains in life expectancy through progress made in public health and health care are hard to maintain. This includes the reduction of smoking rates, treating heart disease, diagnosing and treating cancer; stating that “a consequence of having already achieved large gains in life expectancy is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve further big improvements“.

This slowdown is happening across the UK. Regional data from 2001 to 2018 shows that advances in life expectancy at age 65 across all regions were significantly smaller in the last six years than in the two previous six-year periods for both men and women. For the UK as a whole, life expectancies for women improved by 1.7 years over the 12 years 2001 and 2013 but by just 0.2 years over the last six years.

However, although the slowdown is UK-wide, it is worst in the more deprived areas of the country, and this is leading to an increase in regional inequalities: the gap in life expectancy between affluent and poor local authority areas has widened. For example, female life expectancy at age 65 in Camden improved by 1.2 years over the last six years, but in Lincoln, there was a fall of 6 months. Across England, life expectancy is now lowest in the North East and highest in London. According to the recently released Marmot review, “For both men and women, the largest decreases were seen in the most deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in the North East and the largest increases in the least deprived 10 percent of neighbourhoods in London”.

Inequalities in life expectancy have also risen amongst women, who are experiencing a greater slowdown than men. The Health Foundation raised this in a new report; “Women have experienced a greater slowdown in mortality improvements than men and for women aged over 85 mortality rates actually increased between 2011 and 2016”. It seems that the inequalities witnessed across regions and differing levels of affluence are impacting women than men, although the experts can give no definitive reason for this trend.

Changes in the UK’s life expectancy patterns are unlikely to be explained by a single cause, but by the interaction between a wide range of characteristics, age groups, geographies and causes of death. Widening inequalities in life expectancy might be linked to ‘austerity’ measures. The Marmot review emphasises that it is difficult to attribute the slowing life expectancies to austerity but “We can say, though, that austerity has adversely affected the social determinants that impact on health in the short, medium and long term”.

So, what does this mean for legacies?

We know that the slowdown in life expectancies is most pronounced in the more deprived areas of the country and that the regions with the highest mortality rates hold the lowest median household wealth. This suggests that poorer people are likely to account for a disproportionate number of the projected death increases. We also know that less affluent people are significantly less likely to have a will or to include a charitable gift.

A key component of our models of the legacy sector is the – historically very tight – relationship between bequest numbers and the number of deaths in the UK. But if a significant part of the increase in death numbers is due to poorer people dying sooner, then the resulting increase in bequests is likely to be much smaller.

We are currently re-examining whether the relationships captured in our models are changing. Over the next few months, we hope to report in more detail on whether the UK’s evolving death trends have also brought about a change in the relationship between deaths and the legacy market.

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