Life expectancy increases by 15 years, says ESRI

Gains in living standards and adoption of healthier lifestyles cited as key reasons

Key driver in improved mortality rate has been reductions in smoking. Photograph: The Irish Times

Key driver in improved mortality rate has been reductions in smoking. Photograph: The Irish Times


Life expectancy in Ireland has increased by 15 years since 1950, principally due to reductions in smoking, according to new research.

However, changing patterns of death from external causes such as accidents, assault and suicide are driving a growing gap in life expectancy across social classes, the research by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), Trinity College Dublin and NUI Maynooth suggests.

Another factor behind the growing differential are changes in the incidence of digestive causes of death, such as diseases of the liver and oesophagus. Among women deaths from cancer also contribute to a widening gap between social groups.

The study attributes the massive increase in life expectancy in the second half of the 20th century to improvements in living standards and the adoption of healthier lifestyles. In 1950, life expectancy stood at 66 years but by 2012, this had increased by a full 15 years, to 81. Reductions in smoking since the 1970s played a major part in this improvement.

All social groups have experienced improvements in life expectancy since the 1980s. Between 1996 and 1999, death rates fell by 5 per cent, but they fell by 26 per cent between 2000 and 2004.

However, the improvement was accompanied by a growing gap in life expectancy according to social class. In the 1980s, the death rate among male manual workers was twice as high as among professional groups, but by the 2000s the disparity had increased to 140 per cent.

Manual workers

Researchers say the increasing gap between non-manual and manual groups reflects differences in deaths from external causes, digestive diseases and, in the case of women, cancer.

Death rates among male manual groups from external causes were 2.3 times higher than the professional groups in the 1980s, they were 3.9 times higher in the 2000s.

Whereas death rates among male professionals, managers and the self-employed decreased by 27 per cent between the 1990s and 2000s, those among male working-class groups decreased by just 4 per cent.

Among women, the death rate for manual groups from digestive causes was 1.5 times higher than for professionals; by the 2000s, this differential had risen to 2.1.

The research, which has been funded by the Health Research Board over the past three years, is the subject of a conference today at the ESRI.