The Greater Manchester town where men die before their time

As areas of Greater Manchester go, they couldn’t be more different.

One sits on the edge of the Peak District – where its grey stone cottages fade into rolling hills and dramatic vistas.

The other lies on the banks of the Irwell, in the shadow of Strangeways prison tower – soundtracked by the constant hum of traffic heading in and out of the city centre.

In one – Saddleworth South – female residents can expect to live to an average age of over 88.

While in Lower Broughton, men are given an average life expectancy barely over 71.

READ MORE: Life on the cheapest street in Greater Manchester

The gap is as dramatic as the difference in the landscape.

Life expectancy is a complicated and often misunderstood measure of health, but one thing is clear from the latest data for Greater Manchester: a huge divide has opened up.

The statistics from Public Health England reveal men in inner city Salford are only expected to live five years after state pension age — whereas women in Saddleworth can expect 22 years in retirement.

In order to understand why such a chasm had opened up in one of the most populous areas of the country, the Manchester Evening News spoke with health chiefs, local politicians, and residents themselves.

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The view from Greenfield

If you’re after a long life, Saddleworth South is about as good a place as you can get in Greater Manchester.

Women in the ward, encompassing historic mill towns such as Uppermill and Greenfield, are expected to live to 88.07 — the best in the city-region — and men’s expectation of 84.04 is good enough for second place, behind Hale Barns in Trafford.

What’s immediately obvious when entering Greenfield, where the M.E.N. canvassed residents about their lifestyles, is how much of a way life walking is.

Along with hikers sampling the hills, locals of all ages can be seen popping into Tesco, exercising dogs, and running errands on foot.

“The village has got everything,” Suzanne Garside says. “You don’t need to leave the village, if you don’t want to.”

The 72-year-old is a regular volunteer in the St. Mary’s Church charity shop — but she is far from the oldest staff member.

“Up until Covid, we had volunteers in the shop, the oldest of which was 90,” she adds. “This shop is run by people mainly over 70.”

Jean Lowe (left) and Kathleen Whitehead
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

Suzanne is joined by old school friend Lynda McGowan, who’s a year older than her.

Lynda is a new arrival in Greenfield, moving up from Oldham ‘recently’.

“One of the factors for me moving here was that I wanted to use my car less,” Lynda explains. “I do a lot of things in Greenfield. I go to church, work in here two days a week, so I was driving up here everyday. It was a 12 mile round trip.”

However, her move was not all plain-sailing. The cost of relocating to the village is high, with Lynda selling ‘two houses to buy one here’.

Affluence is apparent in the Tesco car park, as big off-roaders compete to squeeze into tiny spaces with German saloons.

Wealth is reflected in life expectancy data.

Saddleworth South’s average household income of £33,265 annually is more than double Oldham’s Alexandra ward — Greater Manchester’s lowest life expectancy area for women, and fourth-lowest for men — at £16,274.

That wealth pays dividends, say Kathleen Whitehead and Jean Lowe, walking near Greenfield Cricket Club.

“There’s a lot of affluent people, money-wise,” Kathleen says. “I suppose really, our housing is better, too.”

Jean agrees that there are ‘very few “slum” properties’ in the village, and says income also has an effect on food.

She adds: “I don’t have a lot of takeaways, and don’t really have a lot of processed food. “That’s to do with your income. It might seem silly to have a takeaway when you’re poor, but that’s what happens.

“If you’ve not got the money, you can’t speculate to accumulate in making meals.”

Greenfield Cricket Club
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

Experts agree wealth is probably the most important factor in quality and length of life.

“There’s a really strong relationship between health and wealth,” Katrina Stephens, Oldham’s director of public health, says. “Numerous research studies have proved that beyond any doubt.

“It’s not just where people live, it’s about where they’re born and all of their experiences throughout life. We know that disadvantage starts pre-birth, in pregnancy, and those disadvantages add up over time.

“It’s about resources, which is partly how much money they have got available — but also what other resources they have in terms of social networks in family and friends they can call upon.

“We know a lot of this is about inequalities in how society is structured as well.”

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Resource also goes some way to explaining why this corner of Oldham is especially long-living. The region’s other healthy areas are all traditionally associated with money — Bramhall, Timperley, Bowdon, and Hale — but none get near to Saddleworth.

There’s a link between loneliness and health in later age, which also seems to favour Saddleworth.

“Social connections people have with others are really important for well-being, but also the amount of people you can call upon if times get difficult for any reason,” Katrina continues.

“Income can make a difference. The extent to which you can get out and join in certain activities is affected by how much money you’ve got.”

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Fortunately for pensioners here, there’s a thriving social scene, and many have the disposable income to enjoy it.

There’s a popular golf club, bowls are played, and there are tennis and squash courts. That’s not to mention the church’s work, which has a ladies’ luncheon club that allows members ‘get together for a natter’, Suzanne explains.

Liz Rook, walking a dog nearby, adds: “There’s a good community spirit, people are looking after one another.”

Life in Lower Broughton

On the day the M.E.N. went out to Saddleworth and Broughton, both towns had mist in the air. Clouds rolled off the moors in Greenfield, but the mist in Broughton was unpleasant.

It was made up of collecting exhaust fumes from bumper to bumper traffic, with brake lights and the sound of horns colouring the scene in this section of Salford.

It’s no wonder air quality is a concern for Salford’s health chief, Councillor John Merry.

He also represents the Broughton ward.

Asked about pollution, locally, he says: “It is an important issue in the area. It is one of the things we are looking at.

“I am worried about the air.”

Like his counterparts in Oldham, he also points to inequality as a reason why men here are only expected to live to 71.68 years old.

Flats in Broughton
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

“Lower Broughton is an area of huge deprivation which has an effect on life expectancy,” he adds. “From that, it does not come as a massive surprise to me.

“We have done something very innovative with a task group to try and tackle some of the issues about life expectancy in Broughton.

“[One of] the things we are talking about is smoking, it’s still quite a big thing in that area.

“From that point of view, we have a lot to do.”

Smoking may be one factor, but for David Smyth, a granddad collecting children from school, food is also a problem.

“You cannot get fresh food here,” he tells the M.E.N. “The ordinary working man cannot afford fresh food.

“In Spain, the food difference is unbelievable.”

Mr Smyth, who is 72, has spent his life in Salford. He’s split it between Ordsall and Broughton, but has called the latter home since 1981.

He thinks regional division is why Manchester’s second city lags behind.

He continues: “It’s the North-South divide. They proved it with the pandemic.

“They are doing a lot, but a lot was spent on the Quays — and a lot was European money and they do not get that now.

“They try their best, but if they have not got the money, they have not got it.”

Another mum, who wants to stay anonymous, lists driving as a concern in the area. The school gates are surrounded by signs encouraging parents to walk their children home and not park directly outside.

Again, income plays a role in activity.

Although both Broughton and Alexandra are blessed with large parks, there’s appears to be a reticence to walk. Partly, that’s down to safety.

Traffic in Lower Broughton
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

“We know people are likely to stick to active habits if they build it into their everyday lives,” Katrina Stephens explains.

“The environment is really important to that. People are only going to walk to places if they feel safe on the streets.”

It’s clear from speaking with the experts that they believe life expectancy isn’t just about stopping people from smoking, getting them to eat mountains of veg, or downloading the Couch to 5K app. It’s about tackling wider problems, and helping poorer families out of poverty.

How can we improve it?

“One of the reasons I am doing this interview today is that it’s my personal passion,” Councillor Zahid Chauhan OBE says.

He represents the Alexandra ward, is the borough’s cabinet member for health, and is a GP.

The Labour man continues: “All the factors you’re describing are environmental factors. When you get to the NHS and treatment, it’s too late. The damage has been done.”

He says the problem needs a ‘long-standing, multi-factorial’ solution — and believes an apology is due.

Coun Chauhan

Coun Chauhan adds: “Before we get to that point, we need to have an honest conversation with the public and apologise to them. We’ve let you down.

“We’ve let you down for the last 80, 100 years, and because of us, your kids are going to die younger.”

It’s a tall order, no doubt, but Katrina also points out that in Oldham, her borough, there are services to tackle the problem more immediately.

“It’s important to not be defeatist,” she says, “We have got services in place that can support people to make positive changes, whether that’s stopping smoking, being more active, or improving diet.

“Also, I recognise that’s addressing some of the symptoms, rather than the causes.”

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Manchester Evening News – Oldham