In common with the rest of the developed world, people in Northern Ireland are living longer thanks to improved medical care, diet and living conditions, but well-off people are living longest.
Health Minister Edwin Poots used a simple bus journey in Belfast yesterday to highlight how deprivation and other factors can shorten life expectancy. He pointed out how people in poorer inner city areas at the start of the bus journey will die up to nine years earlier than those living in the leafy suburbs of Malone at the route terminus.
It was a simple and effective method of getting the message home. Genetics, gender and age are the big determinants of how long we will live, but other influencing factors include the individual's lifestyle and the environment in which they live. Some of the problems determining life expectancy can be tackled on an individual basis. Cut out smoking, cut down on drinking, increase exercise and have a healthier diet are the well publicised lifestyle improvements which can make a dramatic difference to health and well-being.
But tackling environmental and social problems requires joined up government policies. Poor living conditions, lack of educational attainment and poor employment prospects demand action by various government departments. These problems are as well-known as the lifestyle ones noted above, but seem equally intractable.
The levels of inequality and deprivation found within Northern Ireland - a relatively small, self-contained region - are shaming.
Mr Poots' new 10-year-old strategy, building on foundations laid during the past decade, offers individuals and policy-makers the opportunity to even out the inequalities in our society as they affect health and well-being. It is vital that the widest possible consultation takes place on the document and that the views expressed are heeded and acted upon. Ultimately this is a document which is a matter of life and death and surely there cannot be any more compelling set of policy decisions than those flowing from it.