BBC News

Health gap 'wider than in Great Depression'

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

image captionUnemployment soared in the Great Depression

The health inequality gap in Britain is greater than it was during the post-World War I slump and the Great Depression, a study suggests.

Despite the continued rise in life expectancy, it is well documented that the gap between richest and poorest has actually been widening in recent years.

Researchers from Sheffield and Bristol looked at early death rates since 1921.

They found the current gap was greater than it was in the 1920s and 1930s, the British Medical Journal reports.

Stock market crash

The researchers analysed mortality data for England and Wales, obtained from the Office for National Statistics, and for Scotland, obtained from the General Register Office for Scotland.

Between 1999 to 2007, for every 100 deaths before the age of 65 in the richest 10th of areas, there were 212 in the poorest 10th.

This compared with 191 deaths in the poorest areas from 1921 to 1930 and 185 deaths from 1931 to 1939.

These decades cover probably the toughest economic and social period of the 20th century.

The UK spent the 1920s struggling to recover from WWI and was then caught up in the Great Depression of the following decade which was sparked by 1929 stock market crash in the US.

From that period onwards health inequalities started narrowing until the 1970s, the analysis showed.

Researchers said this was mainly due to the boom in manufacturing in the traditionally poorer parts of Britain.

But since then the gap has widened, particularly during the last 20 years.

This means that the pledge by the previous Labour government to reduce the inequality gap between 1997 and 2010 is almost certain to be missed.

Lead researcher Professor Danny Dorling said the findings were a "stark reminder" of the challenge facing the nation.

"Health and wealth are directly linked and, unless we tackle the income gap, we could well see life expectancy actually starting to fall for the first time in the poorest areas."

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a leading health inequalities expert who has advised both the government and World Health Organization, said: "There are two major challenges: to improve health for everybody and to reduce inequalities. In Britain, we have done well on the first - not on the second.

"This should not be taken as a counsel of despair. Over the last decade, life expectancy for the bottom quarter of the population increased significantly, but their health did not catch up with the average, because of persisting social and economic inequalities."

More on this story

  • What is the best way to tackle the UK’s health inequality gap?