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The WHO have opened our eyes to the lie of aggregated data

The World Health Organisation report on life expectancy has proven not just how increasingly unequal opportunities are in the 21st century but also how misleading statistics can be, says MHF president Dr Ian Banks.


Ian BanksIn the UK, a boy born in the Calton suburb of Glasgow will probably live, on average, 28 years less than one born a few miles away in Lenzie.

Life expectancy at birth for males in Hampstead, north west London, is 11 years longer than for men born near St Pancras railway station just a handful of stops on the number 46 bus away.

These are just two of the statistics unearthed in the excellent and eye-opening final report of the World Health Organisation's Commission on Social Determinants of Health.

Inequality in life-expectancy is a global problem. Aboriginal men live 15 years less than white Australian males. Life expectancies among black and white men in Washington DC suburbs differ by 17 years. Average life expectancy across Africa is the lowest of all the world's regions at 48 years. But the UK has particular problems.

The British government has undertaken to narrow the gap in life expectancy and infant mortality between rich and poor by 10% by 2010. But the report saw health secretary Alan Johnson forced onto the radio to admit: 'We haven't closed the gap, in fact the gap has widened, but the health of those who are most disadvantaged in life expectancy and infant mortality is at the same level as the rest of the population was eight years ago.'

Maybe but Johnson's comment highlights one of the greatest curses for addressing the often dreadful state of men's health: the aggregation of data, much valued and exploited by governments whose mantra is 'we are all living longer'.

But when the statistics are disaggregated a completely different and alarming picture emerges with static or even declining health statistics for many lower income groups. In short, the gap in health between the rich and poor is widening not narrowing and with catastrophic results. Suicide, now the greatest single cause of death for young men and boys is almost exclusively in lower income groups.

To have a near 30 year difference in average life expectancy for boys across the UK is sad testament to a government elected to address inequalities. The Men's Health Forum has long campaigned for better targeting of resources to address this shameful blindness to social need. When it comes to statistics we cannot — without disaggregated data - see the trees for the wood.

Page created on September 1st, 2008

Page updated on December 1st, 2009