A slowdown in life expectancy improvements has been observed in several countries in Europe, North America, and Australia, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), which compared recent trends in mortality in 20 countries. Lower life expectancies typically mean lower costs for pension plans.
According to the ONS, the UK experienced steady improvements in life expectancy at birth throughout the 20th century, which it attributed to improvements in treating infectious diseases, health improvements in the population as it ages, advances in medical care, and behavioral changes such as a reduction in the rate of smoking.
However, the decreases in UK mortality rates have been slowing over the past seven years. Between 2011 and 2016, the UK experienced one of the largest slowdowns in improvements in life expectancy at birth and at age 65 years for both men and women, which included a sharp rise in deaths in 2015 that led to the first reduction this century in UK life expectancy at birth.
The research found that the UK wasn’t alone in experiencing this trend.
Improvements in life expectancy in the US were down 87%, to 1.5 weeks per year from 11.2 weeks, the second-lowest improvements of all countries in the ONS’ last six years of data. In five other countries, females experienced a slowdown of 40% or higher: the Netherlands (47%), Sweden (45%), Germany (45%), France (43%), and Canada (40%).
Of the 20 countries studied, males aged 80 years and over in the UK experienced the largest relative improvement in mortality rates between 2001 and 2011, improving approximately 21% over the period. Between 2011 and 2016, mortality rates for males aged 80 years and over in the UK leveled out, improving by 2% over the six-year period. Only three of the countries have seen the same or less of an improvement than the UK in the second period. France also saw mortality rates decline by 2%, Germany experienced no improvement and Portugal experienced a rise of 1%.
The slowdown in improvements in mortality was observed most widely for 65- to79-year-olds across the 20 countries analyzed, while women have been more affected overall by the slowdown than men have.
From 2000 to 2011, there was a marked increase in life expectancy for the majority of the 20 countries studied. Throughout the period, the average improvement in life expectancy at birth for the countries was 13.1 weeks per year for males, and 9.4 weeks per year for females. However, from 2011 to 2016, there was a slowing in improvements as life expectancy for males on average improved by 10.4 weeks per year and for females by 6.7 weeks per year.
The greatest slowing in life expectancy at birth for males was experienced by the US, dropping almost 90% from 14.1 weeks per year from 2005 to 2010 to 1.5 weeks per year from 2010 to 2015. The UK was right behind, as improvements plunged nearly 76% to 4.2 weeks per year from 2011 to 2016, from 17.3 weeks per year from 2006 to 2011. The other countries that saw a large slowdown were Spain (37%), Germany (36%), Portugal (32%), and Sweden (31%).
Switzerland, however, which had the highest life expectancy at birth for males, and the third-highest for females in 2016, did not see a slowdown. It experienced 12.5 weeks per year improvements in both reference periods for males, and a slight reduction from 7.3 weeks to 6.2 weeks per year for females.
There were some countries that had greater improvements in the second period than the first, such as Japan, which had the largest increase in improvements in life expectancy at birth between the two time periods for both males (5.3 weeks to 16.2 weeks per year) and females (1.8 weeks to 13.3 weeks per year). The ONS said this may indicate that Japan is in a slightly advanced position compared with other countries in its demographic trends, having experienced a slowdown between 2006 and 2011, and is now seeing greater improvements in recent years.
Meanwhile, most Nordic countries, excluding Sweden, did not experience a slowdown in improvements in life expectancy at birth. Norway saw a large increase in improvements between the two periods for males (9.0 weeks to 16.7 weeks per year), and a small decrease for females (8.1 weeks to 7.5 weeks per year). Denmark saw improvements rise for males (12.3 weeks to 16.6 weeks per year) and females (9.2 weeks to 14.0 weeks per year), while Finland had a large increase in improvements for males (12.4 weeks to 19.8 weeks per year) and a slight improvement for females (9.8 weeks to 9.9 weeks per year).