How does life expectancy in parts of Glasgow compare with Kabul?

27 April 2011

"The life expectancy of people in parts of this city is 10 years worse than in Kabul" George Galloway, Respect Party quoted in the Guardian, 22 April 2011.

Direct comparisons of life expectancy that tell a story of lives in some UK communities being shorter than those in war torn and poverty stricken areas of the world clearly have the power to shock.

But attempts to make such comparisons have also seen the media and politicians misrepresent statistics in search of the hard hitting headline. This was shown in a recent Full Fact article that highlighted the incorrect comparison of life expectancy between Merthyr Tydfil and Haiti.

So are the comparisons between Scotland's largest city and the Afghan capital any more valid? When one Full Fact reader queried this figure, we went in search of the answers.

The claim seems to be based on the alarmingly low life expectancy in the Calton area of Glasgow. The figure of 53.9 years for male life expectancy was reported by the Guardian in 2006, 2008 and 2010 — this was contrasted with 73 years for Scotland as a whole.

At the time the point was made that the life expectancy in Calton was significantly lower than the of Iraq or the Gaza strip.

However the figure originates from an academic article by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health. It is based on data from 1998 to 2002 as well as data from the 2001 census.

In the World Health Organisation's 2008 Commission on Social Determinants of Health the figure was once again cited, in the context of a number of international comparisons on life expectancy.

Yet questions have been raised about how meaningful the number actually is.

The National Forum on Drug Related Deaths in Scotland has since cast some doubt on the Calton life expectancy figure of 53.9 years for men.

The 2008-9 Annual Report argues that because Calton has a number of hostel accommodation facilities and the areas population has changed over recent years, the death rate used in calculating life expectancy was distorted. Excluding drug-related deaths and suicides also raises estimated male life expectancy in Calton to 59 years. Female life expectancy for Calton for the same period was 75 years

Because the figures are based on data now nearly a decade old, they should be treated with a degree of caution when used to represent the present.

Unfortunately we have not yet been able to find a more recent figure for life expectancy in Calton specifically.

The Scottish Public Health Observatory does publish data on life expectancy at larger the administrative area level of Calton, Gallowgate and Bridgeton. They put the most recent life expectancy figure this area at 64.5 for men and 79.5 for women — but no direct comparison can be made with the earlier figure.

The Scottish national average from 2007 to 2009 for men was 75.4 years and for women was 80.1 years.

Further, the General Register Office for Scotland has data that looks specifically at life expectancy for the most deprived areas and deciles in Scotland. This shows that in 2009 the most deprived 10 per cent decile of men had a life expectancy of 67-68 years, the equivalant figure being 75-76 years for women. The most deprived area at the same period was North Glasgow, with a male life expectancy of 69-70 years.

Notwithstanding the caveats that come with the 53.9 life expectancy figure, there is potentially another problem with the original claim.

Taking the figure of 53.9 years, whilst keeping in mind the problems associated with it, we were still not able to make a direct comparison with data from Afghanistan that corresponded with George Galloway's comparison.

We were unable to find any official data on life expectancy for Kabul alone, however data for Afghanistan overall is available. The CIA World Factbook put life expectancy for men in Afghanistan at 44.79 years whilst the World Bank most recent 2009 figure is 44 years, but is not gender specific..

This is significantly lower than the 64 years implied by Mr Galloway's statement, but also than the 54 years of life expectancy for men in Calton found in by the Glasgow Centre for Popoulation Health.

We have contacted the Respect party to see if they have any Kabul-specific figures with which we may be able to properly assess the accuracy of the claim.

Had the former MP made the comparison with Gaza used elsewhere, he would have been on surer grounds. The CIA World Factbook lists the life expectancy for men as 72.25 years, although there is still the question of how valid comparisons are between extremely local figures with national averages.


Since data was published putting the life expectancy for men in Calton at 54.9 years there have been a number of unflattering international comparisons that have been made; George Galloway's reference to Kabul only the most recent.

However, taking the Calton figure of 54.9 years for men from the 1998 to 2002 figures and comparing these to the most recent Afghanistan figure of between 44 and 45 shows that a difference of 10 years in favour of the Glasgow man from Calton.  

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