The cost of living crisis will probably cause thousands of premature deaths in the UK and significantly widen the wealth and health gap between the richest and poorest, a study has suggested.
Millions of Britons have been hit hard with levels of inflation not seen since the 1970s as a result of the war in Ukraine, Covid, Brexit and economic policy. Poorer households have borne the brunt as they spend a larger proportion of their income on energy, the cost of which has soared.
A new modelling study suggests premature deaths – people dying before they reach 75 – will rise 6.5% this year due to the cost of living crisis, with 30 extra deaths per 100,000 people. The findings were published in the journal BMJ Public Health.
The study focused on Scotland. But the researchers, from Public Health Scotland and the University of Glasgow, said “similar effects are likely across the UK as we have modelled the impact of UK government measures”.
The predicted increase in premature deaths – from a baseline 463 per 100,000 people to 493 per 100,000 – equates to thousands of extra deaths a year in the UK.
To mitigate the impact of the cost of living crisis, the UK government introduced a universal energy price guarantee (EPG) and targeted cost of living support payments for the poorest households.
Evidence shows low income is associated with poorer health and that falls in income adversely affect health. The researchers wanted to assess the potential impact of inflation on death rates this year – with and without mitigating measures.
They used scenario modelling to estimate how recent high inflation would affect household incomes, how mitigation measures would modify these effects, and how death rates, life expectancy and inequalities would change as a result.
They modelled three scenarios: without any mitigating measures; with the inclusion of the EPG; and with the inclusion of the EPG and cost of living support payments. These were compared against “business as usual” – average inflation from previous years – to estimate the health effects of each one.
In every scenario modelled, households in the most deprived areas were the hardest hit in relative terms, even with government support, and will be £1,400 worse off in 2022/23, the study found.
Without any mitigation, inflation will increase premature deaths by 5% in the least deprived areas and by 23% in the most deprived, the study suggests. The EPG scenario would lower these to between 3% and 16%, and the addition of the cost of living support would cut these to between 2% and 8%.
That means that even in the best-case scenario, premature deaths in the poorest households are predicted to rise at a rate four times faster than in the wealthiest.
Overall life expectancy also falls in each of the three scenarios modelled. But in each case, larger reductions in life expectancy were predicted in the most deprived areas.
The researchers acknowledged limitations to their modelling. For example, their price inflation estimates didn’t include the costs associated with owning, maintaining and living in one’s own home or other factors affecting household expenditure.
They concluded: “The mortality impacts of inflation and real-terms income reduction are likely to be large and negative, with marked inequalities in how these are experienced. Implemented public policy responses are not sufficient to protect health and prevent widening inequalities.”