Rise in death rates in older pensioners ‘linked with austerity measures’

A new study says cuts in Pension Credit spending as part of the Coalition government’s austerity measures in England have a ‘significant’ link with a rise in death rates among pensioners aged 85 or over.

In England, total spending on Pension Credits (income support payments for low-income pensioners) reduced by 6.5%* in 2012. The research investigates why deaths rates for older pensioners, which had been in decline, began to rise again after 2010 and whether this trend was linked to budget cuts.

Using statistical models, the study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine finds that the drop in Pension Credit spending in 2012 corresponds with a 1.4% rise in the death rates of those aged 85 or over (as compared with 2011). During this period there was also a drop in the numbers of people receiving Pension Credit, further corresponding to increases in death rates of 2.7%. Taken together, the researchers say these two changes in the support system for older persons may account for a large share of the observed rises in old age mortality since 2010. The researchers found similar patterns for both men and women, with weaker links for pensioners aged 75 to 84 and no links for those below the age of 75.

The research was carried out by the University of Oxford, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the University of Glasgow and the University of Liverpool. Researchers analysed Office for National Statistics data on the death rates of pensioners across England between 2007 and 2013, matching it with figures on welfare expenditure, including Pension Credit spending, across 324 local authorities. They looked at both the numbers claiming Pension Credit and how much funding they received after the cuts had taken effect.

Office of National Statistics figures show how declining death rates in persons aged 85 and over in England reversed and began to rise in 2011. By 2013, they were 4% higher than in 2010 among men, while among women they were 6% higher. During this period, average spending on Pension Credit fell from £2482 per claimant in 2011 to £2349 in 2013.

The paper explains it was not possible to investigate the specific causes of death since older pensioners often have multiple disorders when they die. It suggests, however, that financial hardship in older persons could increase risks of poor nutrition and vulnerability to cold weather and flu outbreaks. When the Winter Fuel Payment (another income supplement for pensioners) was introduced in the 1990s, there was a significant drop in death rates, the paper notes.

Lead author Dr Rachel Loopstra, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘It is widely believed that pensioners have been spared from austerity measures. But the data suggests that, especially for low-income pensioners, support has been cut and eligibility tightened and these cuts may have been linked to rising mortality in this vulnerable population.’

Professor Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, added: ‘The narrow focus on the state pension in policy debates has obscured how austerity measures may have negatively affected low-income, older pensioners.’

Professor David Stuckler said: ‘This study suggests that even seemingly small cuts to support for vulnerable older persons can have a devastating effect – possibly even costing them their lives.’

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