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Has Scotland always been the ‘sick man’ of Europe? An observational study from 1855 to 2006

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Gerry McCartney, David Walsh, Bruce Whyte, Chik Collins
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckr136 First published online: 22 October 2011

Abstract

Background: Scotland has been dubbed ‘the sick man of Europe’ on account of its higher mortality rates compared with other western European countries. It is not clear the length of time for which Scotland has had higher mortality rates. The root causes of the higher mortality in Scotland remain elusive. Methods: Life expectancy data from the Human Mortality Database were tabulated and graphed for a selection of wealthy, mainly European countries from around 1850 onwards. Results: Scotland had a life expectancy in the mid-range of countries included in the Human Mortality Database from the mid-19th century until around 1950. After 1950, Scottish life expectancy improved at a slower rate than in comparably wealthy nations before further faltering during the last 30 years. Scottish life expectancy now lies between that of western European and eastern European nations. The USA also displays a marked faltering in its life expectancy trend after 1981. There is an inverse association between life expectancy and the Index of Economic Freedom such that greater neoliberalism is associated with a smaller increase, or a decrease, in life expectancy. Conclusion: Life expectancy in Scotland has only been relatively low since around 1950. From 1980, life expectancy in Scotland, the USA and, to a greater extent, the former USSR displays a further relative faltering. It has been suggested that Scotland suffered disproportionately from the adoption of neoliberalism across the nations of the UK, and the evidence here both supports this suggestion and highlights other countries which may have suffered similarly.

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