New atlas maps geographical pattern of mortality in Great Britain

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Sheffield have created an 'atlas of death' which charts the geographical pattern of mortality in Great Britain. The full-colour atlas shows the wide variation in death rates from a variety of different causes, from heart attacks and cancer to suicide and murder, for over 1,000 neighbourhoods.

The atlas, the first to be published for over two decades, entitled The Grim Reaper's road map, shows that where you live can vary your chances of dying from below three-quarters to over one and a half times the national average. There are much wider differences for many single categories of death.

Published today by the University's Policy Press, the atlas analyses almost 15 million death records for the period 1981 to 2004. It looks at deaths by cause, gender and geographical area and is displayed in a series of area maps with accompanying commentary. The atlas maps Standardised Mortality Ratios (SMRs) for all deaths, for nine groupings of categories and for 99 single categories of death. 14,833,696 death records were used to draw up the maps.

Other key findings include:

  • In many of the maps there is a stark divide in mortality between north and south, rich and poor, men and women
  • Lung cancer has a distinct north/south divide, with death rates ranging from below half the national average in the south west of England to over twice the average in Scotland
  • Skin cancer has an inverse geographic pattern to many other causes of death, with rates higher in the south than the north
  • Despite its reputation as a disease of childhood, the average age of death from leukaemia is 67.2.  There is a remarkably even spread across the country with little geographic variation
  • Between the ages of 10 and 24, the main cause of death is transport related, mostly road traffic accidents
  • By the early twenties, suicide and deaths due to drugs are the main killers across much of urban Britain, with suicide the most significant cause of death of those in their late twenties.

Speaking about the findings, Dr Mary Shaw from the University of Bristol, one of the co-authors of The Grim Reaper's road map said:

'This atlas exposes the patterns of death in modern Britain. It illustrates that many of the causes of death that people worry about and that receive a lot of media attention, AIDS and assault by cutting, for example, in fact make a minor contribution to death in this country. In contrast, few are aware that people, including babies and children, still die from hunger, thirst, exposure and neglect. Other much more familiar but perhaps more mundane causes - heart disease, cancers and respiratory diseases - claim lives in their thousands. The Grim Reaper's road map is a stark reminder that we will all die from something, sooner or later.'

Co-author Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Sheffield's Department of Geography, added:
'This atlas reveals that people's chances of dying vary greatly across the country. Where you are born, where you live and where you (can) move to, how much money you have, the type of work you do and the life you lead become visible in these amazing maps which show not just where and how people in Britain die, but also tell a story about how they live.'

The atlas's other co-authors are  Dr Bethan Thomas, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield and Professor George Davey Smith, Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol.

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