By Chris Adams

In the United States, more and more people have been dying deaths of despair, from opioids, suicide and alcohol-related deaths. It’s led to a reduction in the lifespan of some American demographic groups.

Now experts in the United Kingdom are wondering if the same thing will happen there.

According to Sir Michael Marmot, one of the world’s leading experts on public health, life expectancy has gone down in the U.S. and is stalling in the U.K. Among the chief reasons why are deaths tied to drugs and other social ills, which haven’t been as pronounced in the U.K. but are now starting to tick up.

“Life expectancy had been increasing about one year every four years since 1921,” he said. “In 2011, it ground to a halt and stopped improving.”

Marmot is a professor of epidemiology at University College London, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity and past president of the World Medical Association. In 2000, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to epidemiology and the understanding of health inequalities.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Marmot detailed the trends in life expectancy, as well as the rise in health inequity in general. Lack of access to care – a big political issue in the U.S. – is only a small part of that.

Marmot is a leader in the understanding of social determinants of health, the field that examines how life varies  widely depending on where you are born and grow up. The poorer the area, the poorer the population, the lower people’s lifespan, as well as their disability free lifespan.

The current health system, however, treats the illness – not what may have led to it. “Why treat people and then send them back to the conditions that make them sick?” Marmot asks.