News Release

Why do Scots die younger?

New research published in Public Health states political context may form underlying cause

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Glasgow, UK, May 29, 2012 - Life expectancy in Scotland is markedly lower compared to other European nations and the UK as a whole [1]. But what are the reasons for this higher mortality? An explanatory framework, synthesising the evidence is published this month in Public Health.

Higher mortality in Scotland is often attributed to higher rates of deprivation, smoking, alcohol consumption and poor diet. However such explanations are not sufficient to understand why Scotland is so very different compared to other areas. A group of researchers found that no single cause was likely to explain the higher mortality, but the authors assert, as a result of their research, that it may be attributable to a range of factors influenced by the political direction of past decades.

In synthesising this evidence the group of researchers identified candidate hypotheses based on a literature review and a series of research dissemination events. Each hypothesis was described and critically evaluated by a set of epidemiological criteria.

Hypotheses identified and tested included: artefactual explanations (e.g. migration); 'downstream explanations' (e.g. genetics, individual values), midstream explanations (e.g. substance misuse, family, gender relations) and; upstream explanations (e.g. climate, inequalities, de-industrialisation and 'political attack').

The results showed that between 1950 and 1980 Scotland started to diverge from elsewhere in Europe and this may be linked to higher deprivation associated with particular industrial employment patterns, housing and urban environments, particular community and family dynamics, and negative health behaviour cultures.

The authors suggest that from 1980 onwards the higher mortality can be best explained by considering the political direction taken by the government of the day, and the consequent hopelessness and community disruption that may have been experienced. Other factors, such as alcohol, smoking, unemployment, housing and inequality are all important, but require an explanation as to why Scotland was disproportionately affected.

"It is increasingly recognised that it is insufficient to try to explain health trends by simply looking at the proximal causes such as smoking or alcohol. Income inequality, welfare policy and unemployment do not occur by accident, but as a product of the politics pursued by the government of the day. In this study we looked at the 'causes of the causes' of Scotland's health problems," said Dr Gerry McCartney, lead author of the study and consultant in public health at NHS Health Scotland.


This article is "Why the Scots Die Younger: Synthesising the Evidence" by McCartney G, Collins C, Walsh D, Batty GD; Public Health (2012) doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2012.03.007.

[1]Life expectancy for areas in Scotland. Edinburgh: National Records of Scotland. Available at:

Notes for editors

Full text of the article is available at For interview requests journalists and reporters may contact Jane Hoeflich at +44 (0) 7500 854 574 or .

Dr Gerry McCartney is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.

About Public Health

Public Health is an international, multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal. It publishes original research papers, reviews and short communications on all aspects of the science, philosophy, and practice of public health. Public Health is published by Elsevier on behalf of the Royal Society for Public Health.

About the Royal Society for Public Health

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is an independent, multi-disciplinary charity, dedicated to the promotion and protection of collective human health and well-being. The RSPH was formed in October 2008 with the merger of the Royal Society of Health and the Royal Institute of Public Health.

The RSPH is a membership organisation with over 6,000 members.

Media contact
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NHS Health Scotland
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