Life expectancy for UK men falls for first time since 1980s

Statistics office notes unusually high number of deaths last year due to the pandemic

Life expectancy for men in the UK has fallen for the first time since current records began, new figures show.

A boy born between 2018 and 2020 is expected to live until he is 79.0 years old, down from 79.2 years for the period 2015-2017, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported.

Estimates for women are broadly unchanged, with a baby girl born between 2018 and 2020 likely to live for 82.9 years, the same as in 2015-2017.

The figures reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to a greater number of deaths than usual last year, the ONS said.

Comparable data on life expectancy begins in 1980-1982, when men were projected to live for 70.8 years and women for 76.8 years.

Pamela Cobb, of the ONS Centre for Ageing and Demography, said: “Life expectancy has increased in the UK over the last 40 years, albeit at a slower pace in the last decade.

“However, the coronavirus pandemic led to a greater number of deaths than normal in 2020.

“Consequently, in the latest estimates, we see virtually no improvement in life expectancy for women, while for men, life expectancy has fallen back to levels reported for 2012 to 2014.

“This is the first time we have seen a decline when comparing non-overlapping time periods since the series began in the early 1980s.”

But the latest figures do not mean that a baby born between 2018 and 2020 will necessarily go on to live a shorter life.

“These estimates rely on the assumption that current levels of mortality, which are unusually high, will continue for the rest of someone’s life,” Ms Cobb said.

“Once the coronavirus pandemic has ended and its consequences for future mortality are known, it is possible that life expectancy will return to an improving trend in the future.”

Once the coronavirus pandemic has ended ... it is possible that life expectancy will return to an improving trend in the future
Pamela Cobb of the ONS

The new estimates show variations between the four UK nations.

Life expectancy for men has fallen in England (from 79.5 years in 2015-2017 to 79.3 years in 2018-2020) and Scotland (77.0 to 76.8), but has risen slightly in Northern Ireland (78.4 to 78.7) while staying broadly unchanged in Wales (at 78.3).

For women, life expectancy has dropped in Wales (from 82.3 to 82.1) and Scotland (81.1 to 81.0), while rising slightly in Northern Ireland (82.3 to 82.4) and remaining mostly flat in England (at 83.1).

Across England, the ONS said there were “significant reductions” in men's life expectancy at birth in most regions, with falls of nearly four months in north-east England and Yorkshire/Humber, and of three months in the West Midlands and north-west England.

By contrast, there was a small increase of a little over one month for men in south-west England.

This is another example of the impact of coronavirus in 2020, with the South West recording lower Covid-19 mortality rates than other regions.

South-west England also had fewer extra deaths — or “excess deaths” — than elsewhere, along with a smaller proportion of its total number of deaths that involved Covid-19.

For women, the biggest regional falls in life expectancy were in the West Midlands (a little over two months) and Yorkshire/Humber (slightly under two months) — but in south-west England, there was a “significant increase” of four months.

Updated: September 23rd 2021, 3:39 PM