Shorter lives or shoddy statistics? – @TheSundayTimes, @CapX, @Worstall

Two articles on Michael Marmot’s odd assertion that the (relatively) recent government policy of austerity was the “obvious candidate” for stalling the growth of UK life expectancy.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot is, of course, well-known as the man behind the famous Whitehall Studies that showed the connection between stress, life-expectancy and control or autonomy in the workplace.

He deserves attention because of his groundbreaking research. However, his recent comments on the effect of government spending cuts upon lifespan seemed odd. Is it plausible that a relatively recent government policy would have such an impact on a long term measure?

In the Sunday Times, Nigel Hawkes takes issue with the conclusion:

So is the UK really the sick man of Europe? The statistics suggest not. Figures from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical body, show that between 2014 and 2015 life expectancy fell across the EU as a whole, and — in sharp contrast to what Marmot says — that falls in Germany, France and Italy were steeper than in the UK.

Between 2000 and 2015, life expectancy rose by three years in the UK, and by very similar amounts in other countries (3.2 years in France, 2.8 in Italy and 2.4 in Germany). Yet growth has slowed everywhere since 2010, and between 2014 and 2015 went into reverse.

He continues…

Life expectancy is also falling in America. We need to find out why, not waste time and damage trust in academics by claiming “the cuts” are to blame.

Scotland has free social care and additional disbursements from UK taxpayers that allow it to spend more on the NHS than England does, yet still has life expectancies far below England’s.

France and Germany are often held up as examples of well-funded healthcare systems, in contrast to the NHS. Yet we’re all in the same boat, and it’s sinking. Not a great moment to engage in petty political point-scoring.

And, points to more plausible alternatives including the flu and the unwinding of long-term effects:

Better health in childhood is linked to better health as an adult, so today’s elderly could have childhood care — antibiotics and vaccines — to thank for their long lives. Since most of the improvement in children’s health was in place by 1950, when today’s 70-year-olds were infants, it may be that the benefits to adult mortality are finally playing out.

On CapX, the Adam Smith Institute’s Tim Worstall takes issue with the underlying statistics:

 In fact, no one is measuring the expected lifespans of those being born today. What is being measured is the age at death of those who were born 60, 80 and 100 years ago.

So because we cannot measure how long people are going to live, we use a proxy: how long did people live? Sure, this has its uses, but, just as GDP doesn’t measure human utility (the important thing), we need to recall that this, too, is just a proxy – not the thing itself. Remember this, and Marmot blaming the past seven years of austerity doesn’t quite make sense.

For example, we now insist it’s the early years which make the most difference to lifelong health and thus presumably lifespan. Which means that the generation now dying was influenced by what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. You know, Depression, Second World War and even the creation of the NHS. Not recent Tory policy.

And, he makes an interesting point about domestic migration:

We know that richer people live longer than poorer in general. But it’s also true that people migrate as their economic circumstances change. So those people living longer in Kensington were not necessarily born there, nor those dying young in the Gorbals. Being poor is likely to lead to migration to areas where housing is cheap –  and getting richer vice versa.

In fact, this also applies to the emptying out of Appalachia that Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton has remarked upon. Average lifespans seem to be declining there, unprecedented in modern times. Yet all other reports seem to show that those who manage to get out to go to college don’t come back – the very group which we’d expect to have the higher lifespan is leaving, bringing down that average. So it’s entirely possible that the length of lifespan of no single individual has changed, it’s just that the composition of the group being studied is changing.

Both articles are worth a read.


Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash