DEATHS in Scotland have hit a 32 year high amid a surge in people killed by respiratory diseases and a spike in fatal flu cases.

An increase in deaths from dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, and strokes during the first three months of 2018 also contributed to the highest mortality figures recorded since 1986.

Read more: Deaths in January hit 'mystery' 18-year peak as researchers warn of austerity impact

It comes amid growing fears that real-terms cuts in health and care spending since the economic downturn are leading previous gains in life expectancy across the UK to stall, and potentially reverse.

In January, February and March 2018, a total of 17,701 deaths were recorded in Scotland - an increase of 13 per cent compared to the same period in 2017.

Deaths also climbed year-on-year in England and Wales, but by a lower seven per cent, while the death rate for Scotland - at 13.3 per 1000 - is the highest for any quarter in the past decade.

Dr Tony Robertson, a lecturer in public health at Stirling University, said the figures were concerning.

He said: “While flu deaths play a role, we have seen deaths from many causes moving in the wrong direction – heart disease, cancer, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s, self-harm, assault, diabetes, alcohol-related deaths and so on.

"So flu is not the only culprit, a reason previously suggested for similar increases in England and Wales, as well as Scotland.

“We do have to be a little cautious as it’s only data from the first quarter of 2018 but the Scottish Government, and not just those with a focus on health, should be taking note of and highlighting how we reverse these trends.

"Life expectancy in Scotland (and in the UK) has been stalling over recent years. Research has suggested that a decrease in public spending, austerity, have a major role to play in this and it is a risk factor that simply cannot be ignored in this case.”

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The latest statistics, from National Records of Scotland, reveal a 36 per cent increase year-on-year in respiratory deaths to 2855, of which 331 were deaths from influenza.

That compared to 72 in the first three months of 2017 - a spike of 360 per cent year-on-year.

The death toll from flu is huge compared to previous years - between 2008 and 2017, deaths from flu in the first quarter of the year averaged 34.

It came amid alarm over so-called 'Aussie flu' - a strain a which swept Australia in 2017 - and a drop in immunisation rates.

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A spokesman for NHS National Services Scotland said: “Mortality rates often fluctuate significantly from year to year and the rise for this period is not solely related to influenza.

"There was however an increase in flu-like illness and clearly this can aggravate other underlying conditions.

“This reinforces the importance of people taking up the offer of the flu vaccine. We are in the process of evaluating last season’s flu, in partnership with international and European colleagues.

“This vaccine protects against a number of different flu strains and it remains our best defence.”

Deaths from dementia rose by 15 per cent, while fatal strokes wer up 11 per cent.

There were smaller increases for coronary heart disease and cancer deaths, up 5.4 and 1.3 per cent respectively.

It is the fourth year in a row that Scotland has seen its winter deaths increase, having steadily fallen from 2008 to a low of 13,959 in 2014.

Anne Slater, the Acting Registrar General for Scotland, said: “Over the longer term, deaths from coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease have decreased considerably whilst the number of deaths from cancer and respiratory disease has risen slightly.

“There has been a relatively large increase in the number of deaths from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease with such deaths now accounting for more than 10 per cent of all deaths compared to five per cent a decade ago.”

Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “Mortality rates can fluctuate from year to year, sometimes significantly. Last winter saw the highest rates of flu-like illness since 2010/11 and while in many cases of winter mortality influenza will not be the main cause of death, it can aggravate underlying long-term conditions.

"Every year, Health Protection Scotland works with international partners to understand the impact of flu and we will consider its report later this year.

"Vaccination remains the best defence and this year all primary school children, individuals at risk, and the over 65s will be offered the vaccine as usual. In addition, those aged 75 and over will be offered a new, more effective vaccine because of the extra risk to them.

“We have seen long-term improvements in deaths related to heart disease and cancer, while the number of people with dementia, multiple morbidity and complex care needs rises as our population ages.

"NHS Scotland’s workforce has increased by over 10% under this government to historically high levels, has risen by almost 500 in the past year alone to nearly 140,000 and we’re putting record investment into our health service.

“There are deep-rooted and historic issues with population health which we are working hard to address. That is why we are leading the way in the UK with innovative public health policies, such as minimum unit pricing, and why we have embarked upon the biggest programme of transformational change the NHS has ever seen.”