While life expectancy has steadily increased in the UK and other developed countries in recent centuries, austerity measures have caused this trend to stall for the first time outside of a war or pandemic.
The poorest have been the hardest hit, the report from Glasgow University and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health found.
The trends in the study pre-date the Covid pandemic, but researchers warned its impact, and the cost-of-living crisis, would make the situation worse.
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Dr David Walsh, co-author of the report and honorary senior lecturer at Glasgow University, said austerity policies have had “tragic consequences”.
“These changes are almost unprecedented,” he said.
“They should simply not be happening in a wealthy society such as the UK.
“The evidence shows they are principally the result of UK Government austerity policies that have squeezed billions of pounds from public services and social security and have had a devastating impact on the lives of so many in our communities.”
By 2018, life expectancy across the UK fell “substantially below” what would have been expected based on trends before 2011, the report found.
In Scotland life expectancy for both men and women was 1.3 years less in 2018 than it would have been if the trend before 2011 had continued.
Researchers considered other possible reasons for the stalling of growth in life expectancy, including obesity, drug-related deaths, dementia, flu and climate change. But they found austerity was “evidenced as making an important and substantial causal contribution, and is likely to underpin a number of the other observed changes”.
The report authors said the effect on life expectancy was “not inevitable”, and called on the UK and Scottish governments to take urgent action.
Recommendations for the Scottish Government include topping up benefits given by the UK Government, improving social housing, introducing fairer income tax bands, bringing funding for public services back to 2010 levels and adopting a public health approach to drug services.
Dr Gerry McCartney, lead author of the report and professor of wellbeing economy at Glasgow University, said: “At a time when we are witnessing an escalating cost-of-living crisis and when decisions and policy choices are being made about pandemic recovery and rebuilding the economy, now is the time to listen to the evidence and implement these solutions that will support rather than damage population health.
“Any further austerity policies that squeeze public spending will have disastrous long-term impacts on population health and result in more and more lives cut short.
“We cannot allow that. The report’s recommendations and policy responses would put us back on a trajectory of improving mortality trends that we were on pre-austerity and support the population and economy to recover and flourish equitably”.
Dr Andrea Williamson, who is a Deep End GP in Glasgow, meaning she works with patients in some of the poorest areas in Scotland, said the findings were “shameful, but not surprising”.
“We see first-hand the damaging effects of austerity on health,” she said.
“On a daily basis, we see patients who simply don’t have enough money to live on – money to heat their home, feed themselves once their kids are fed or pay the bus fare to visit their family.
“And despite careful budgeting, there is never anything left for the occasional treat or holiday that keeps the better off like me enjoying life.
“The pervasive stress of worrying whether the next pay cheque will cover the cost of the shoes their child really needs, the fear of benefits being sanctioned again, or heating bills vastly outstripping any chance of payment is crippling.
“It stops people, families and communities living the lives we all have a right to live. Every time I speak to a patient experiencing the sharp end of austerity, I feel angry. It is time for change”.
Chris Birt, associate director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, labelled the situation a “crisis of the UK Government’s making”.
“In imposing austerity, the UK Government has managed to stall improvements in life expectancy in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and, worse still, have reduced life expectancy in our least well-off communities,” he said.
"And these mistakes of the recent past are coming home to roost in the present. The austerity driven attack on the adequacy of social security has left low-income households unable to cope with the current dramatic spike in the cost of living.
"It is a crisis of the UK Government’s making. It is, therefore, vital that the recommendations of this report are taken seriously.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is using all of the powers and resources available to us to tackle poverty and help to create a fairer and more equal Scotland, including new welfare payments like the Scottish Child Payment, which have already doubled and which is not available anywhere else in the UK.
“We have also increased eight Scottish Government delivered benefits by 6 per cent and are set to invest over £4 billion in benefit expenditure this financial year, providing support to over one million people. This is more than £360 million above the level of funding to be received from the UK Government through block grant adjustments. However, many of the key powers needed to tackle poverty remain reserved to the UK Government.”
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The new health and care levy will raise around £12bn a year across the UK, with £1.1bn going to support the Scottish Government to further invest in health services by 2024. This is on top of their £41bn annual block grant.
"Tackling health disparities is a priority for the government, and we will work with the Scottish Government and the powers they have to focus on the people and places who face the worst health outcomes.”