Prospects of healthier old age worsening for Scots

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  By Bob Duncan

Pensioners in the UK are living longer, healthier lives, according to a new report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), as long as they don’t live in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The ONS report measured the proportion of people’s lives which are spent in good health, and found that this had increased by 2 years between 2005 and 2010 in England & Wales, but had actually reduced in Scotland and NI over the same period, particularly for men.

According to the report, these figures are “useful guides in the assessment of healthy ageing, by providing intelligence on the size of the population likely to require services associated with dependency, and those able to continue to work beyond the current state pension age.”

The report will be used by government in planning future healthcare resource needs, fitness for work in the face of planned state pension age increases, and the relative impacts of population health on the balance between revenues and benefits.

The ONS study came to the following main conclusions:

  • In the UK, males and females can expect to spend more than 80 per cent of their lives in very good or good general health from birth, falling to around 57 per cent at age 65.
  • Males and females in England can expect to spend the longest periods in very good or good general health and free from a limiting persistent illness or disability. The shortest periods are in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • The proportion of life spent in very good or good general health is increasing in England and Wales but, on the whole, falling in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Males are spending a greater proportion of their lives in favourable health compared with females. However, in recent years this gap has narrowed as the health of females has improved more rapidly than for males.
  • These findings indicate that Scotland and Northern Ireland may face proportionally greater future demands on health services than England and Wales, as they have a higher incidence of poor health in the population, and will require distinct health solutions as a consequence.

The report hints at a reason for the poor results in Scotland and NI by suggesting this is due to poorer employment opportunities and the greater proportion of older workers in England & Wales. “The relationship between health and employment is complex; poor health reduces the pool of the available workforce and unemployment in and of itself, particularly over a prolonged period of time, can lead to poor health”, it states.

However, Ed Jessop, Vice President of the Faculty of Public Health called the figures “encouraging” and said: “They show that action on public health works. There is particular success for people living in England.  But the gap between the health ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has widened.

“There are many complex reasons for this, because our health is affected by a range of factors – not just what we eat or drink, and how active we are, but also our work, housing and access to all sorts of facilities.

“We need action now to address the root causes of these health inequalities.  With all the changes happening in society and in the economy, as well as major changes to the NHS in England, we must use public health expertise to improve and protect our health, as well as to ensure that NHS services provide quality and value for money.”

The statistics also hide an uncomfortable truth: that the age dividend is mainly being enjoyed by the more wealthy in society.  A recent ONS analysis found the difference in healthy life expectancy for 65-year-olds between the richest and poorest areas was almost five years, with male life expectancy in parts of Glasgow among the lowest in the developed world.

The report also showed a difference between the sexes.  The ONS figures show men spend a greater proportion of their lives in favourable health compared with women.  However, in recent years this gap has narrowed as the health of women has improved more rapidly than that of men.

This may be due to higher rates of obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking among men.  The research also suggests mutations in mitochondrial DNA may contribute towards ageing in men but not women.

Since the data for the report was collected from a self-reported survey, which asks how each person would define their own health, the researchers suggest there may also be a difference in the way men and women view their own wellbeing.

Michelle Mitchell, director general of Age UK, said: “We welcome the improvement in healthy life expectancy which sees people in good health for longer than ever before.

“In part this must come from continuing improvements to the levels of healthcare that people in England have access to throughout their lives, as well as wider improvements in public health and people living healthier lifestyles.

“However, the gap between healthy life expectancy for people in different areas across the UK is still a major cause for some concern.”

 

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