Recent headlines have claimed that “life expectancy has fallen”. But this statement is misleading, oversimplified and incorrect. In this article, we explain the data behind those headlines.

On 28 March 2017 the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries launched the new version of its Continuous Mortality Investigation (CMI) Mortality Projections Model. Its principal findings were that:

  • since 2011, the rate at which mortality is improving has been slower than in previous years; but,
  • mortality is expected to continue to improve and there is significant uncertainty as to whether this will be at a slower rate than experienced in the first decade of this century
The fall in projected life expectancy does not mean that individuals are dying younger
— Tim Gordon

Tim Gordon, chairman of the CMI mortality project committee, stated that “The fall in projected life expectancy does not mean that individuals are dying younger. The latest CMI Mortality Projections Model – with typical inputs – projects that mortality will continue to improve and individuals will continue to live longer”.

In short: life expectancy is increasing, but a bit slower than people previously thought it would.

As Tim Gordon states, people are not dying younger and life expectancy isn’t “going backwards”. The slowdown might be skewed by the inclusion of recent data as there were a higher number of deaths at older ages in 2015. This means that the slowdown might be due to a single one-off factor: flu.

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ announcement received widespread attention in the press and was terribly misreported, with scaremongering headlines about “life expectancy falling” appearing in the Financial Times, Moneywise and even the BBC,

Labouring the point

Life expectancy has actually fallen – by a year for 65-year-old women and 6 months for 65-year-old men – since 2013.
— Jeremy Corbyn

Even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn got caught by the misreporting of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ new model. He failed to fact check the headlines himself andrepeated the erroneous claim that life expectancy was falling. He stated that people are dying younger, and blamed Government policies. This got him embroiled in a row with Tory Party Chairman Patrick McLoughlin who said that the Labour leader “couldn’t even get his basic facts right”.

Later that day, Jeremy Corbyn’s team published a further statement which sought to clear up his mistake. However, he did also state that mortality rate improvements are slowing and life expectancy projections have fallen. One has contributed to the other.” He also claimed that life expectancy projections for those aged 45 and 65 have fallen since 2013.

Has life expectancy fallen for 45 and 65 year olds?

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ CMI Mortality Projections model is not publicly available, so we are unable to test the latter assertions using the same data. Jeremy Corbyn’s team stated that these have been backed by “independent health and actuarial experts”.

The most recent mortality data published by the ONS uses 2014-based figures. Jeremy Corbyn claims that life expectancy has fallen since 2013, by 1 year for men and 6 months for women. Although it is not the same data, if Jeremy Corbyn’s claim were true, we would expect to see both some slowing down in life expectancy growth in the years before 2013, as well as a downwards change between 2013 and 2014. If life expectancy terms, a fall of 6-12 months in just 3 years would be a radical decrease, the likes of which would not have been seen since the second world war.

Cohort life expectancy based on 2014 values (women)

Cohort life expectancy based on 2014 values (men)

The graphs above show that life expectancy for the average 45/65 year old man/woman has steadily increased. The long term trend is an upwards one and, although some years have seen bigger changes than others, at no point has life expectancy fallen.

There is no plateauing of life expectancy in the years before 2013 and no downwards change between 2013 and 2014. The ONS data does not support Jeremy Corbyn’s claim.

The graphs show that, in 2014, the average 45 or 65 year old woman could expect to exceed 88 years old, whilst the average 45 or 65 year old man could expect to reach 86.

What are the long term trends in life expectancy?

Life expectancy (both cohort and period) is rising. This is a long term trend that has existed for decades.

This has a number of repercussions: workforces are ageing with more 65+ year olds in employment than ever before, with increases to the numbers of the very old - there are now over half a million 90 year olds in the UK. If pension age had kept up with life expectancy, people would be waiting until they were 73 years old.

Long term future predictions as to life expectancy are based upon the future continuing the themes of the past. The ONS life expectancy estimates have to project forward as far as the year 2164 and, with technology advancing at an exponential rate, there are many unknowns that could have a revolutionary impact on how long we routinely live by this point: from life-extending transformative new approaches to medicine and unlocking the secret to life extension, but also life shortening possibilities such as a killer global flu pandemic and the (un)avoidable end of anti-biotics.

In any event, all life expectancy projections and mortality figures are just averages for a population in general. The keys to a long life are not secrets: eating sensibly, getting regular exercise, having social connections, and maintaining a “purpose” (whether this be by continuing to work or something else) have all been linked with healthy ageing and increased longevity. All of these factors are within your own control. If you want to live longer, you can.