Female life expectancy in Lewisham is still below the national average, despite the drive to improve women’s health in the borough.
Official reports issued last week suggest that whilst women nationally are living longer than ever, life expectancy in the east London borough is not increasing at the same rate.
The situation has been branded “totally unacceptable” by councillors, health researchers and the children’s inequality charity Best Beginnings.
Department of Health figures reveal that a baby girl born and bred in Kensington and Chelsea can expect to live up to 8 years longer than one in Lewisham, where female life expectancy averages around 80.
The persistence of such inequalities prompted Lewisham council to conduct an independent review into the issues involved in reducing the rate of mortality amongst the borough’s female population. The report, released last week, makes it clear that a woman’s lifestyle and economic background can have a huge impact on her health.
The report reveals a 6 per cent rise in the number of young women binge drinking and smoking heavily. Respiratory and circulatory diseases are the biggest killers of women in Lewisham and women’s alcohol consumption has increased at a greater rate than men’s.
The reasons why women’s wellbeing has suffered more than men’s remain unclear. These two reports focus on the impact of socio-economic status on health while both the council and female support groups agree women also find it difficult to access healthcare services due to competing responsibilities of work and motherhood.
Councillor Romayne Phoenix, who chaired the review, said she feared that Lewisham faces a human and financial time bomb unless more is done to redress these trends.
“Poor nutrition and low exercise levels are all council responsibilities, but it is the NHS that is landed with huge treatment costs for the health problems they cause – and those costs are set to soar,” said Cllr Phoenix.
She cited government figures that predict the health bill for overweight people in Lewisham will rise from £76.2m last year to £84.5m by 2015.
She emphasised the need for councillors to work together with the NHS in their efforts to help Lewisham women, and criticised the government’s “top down approach” to health in areas where health problems were so intrinsically linked to socio-economic deprivation and cultural differences.
“If money is filtered down from central government then locally we haven’t got as much freedom over the budget,” Cllr Phoenix pointed out.
Five years ago John Reid, the Health Secretary who oversaw the development of public health schemes specifically designed to improve well-being in areas like Lewisham, declared that “the one-size-fits-all, top-down NHS, the uniform type of service, has utterly failed our most deprived communities.”
That this disparity between rich and poor still exists today for women in Lewisham and other population groups around the country has fuelled the arguments of authorities and academic researchers, who claim that money spent on reducing health inequalities needs to be targeted on a more local level if the boroughs is to close the life expectancy gap by 2010.
“It is simply very difficult to reduce health inequalities between areas without reducing socio-economic differences between areas,” said Professor Helena Tunstall, a specialist in health inequality at York University. She pointed out that while the Department of Health accepts this, much of their inequalities programme is about “upstream interventions based around the NHS”.
The Department of Health will conduct a post 2010 strategic review of health inequalities, chaired by Professor Sir Michael Marmot of University College London.