Just under a third of us will reach 65 “healthy”

Guest blog by Matt Hawkins, Policy and Public Affairs Assistant at the International Longevity Centre-UK

Discussion at an International Longevity Centre-UK, (ILC-UK) event held on Monday, Longevity, health and public policy, revealed that only just short of a third of the UK population will reach retirement “healthy”. Gains in life expectancy have outstripped gains in healthy life expectancy, meaning that potentially over two thirds of people in the UK could find that they are living their retirement years in ill-health.

As a think-tank dedicated to addressing the impacts of our ageing society across generations and throughout the life-course, these findings are of particular concern to ILC-UK. If people are reaching older age in ill-health then this is going to significantly decrease their capacity to remain in work and significantly increase their care needs.

Monday’s event sought to identify the obstacles we face in promoting a healthier older population and to proffer some solutions. Obstacle Number 1 is the current government focus on extending working lives. Whilst this approach is right in its ambition, it is misfiring in execution. The government is currently proposing to gradually increase the state retirement age from 66 to 67 by 2028 in order to keep more people in work for longer. Sadly, this will achieve very little if two-thirds of the UK population is reaching retirement age in ill-health. There needs to be a focus on gearing our population up for working longer – rather than simply using the stick to coerce them.

Getting the UK population in the right gear was another obstacle that the event identified.  Increasing state pension age is a reform that has only been brought in relatively recently and the idea of working longer than previously anticipated is going to be a shock to the system for most people. In addition, Legal & General, hosts of Monday’s event, reported on their recent research which has shown that people very often underestimate their life expectancy by, on average, two years. This can have a significant impact on life-planning – particularly people’s estimations of the care and finances that they will need in older age.

What can we do to overcome some of these difficulties? The debate raised a number of suggestions. For a start there was broad agreement on the need to launch a public health campaign that encourages people to consider their health in later life and not just health in the present. The movement of public health to local authorities under the Health and Social Care Act could also represent an excellent opportunity to improve public health locally through the provision of more green spaces and through improved public transport, cycle-ways and pedestrian zones.

Ultimately, however, an issue such as this which cuts across the fields of economics, the labour market, business, personal finance, and public health requires a policy response from the top. There is a desperate need to find a solution to growing pressure on the UK care network. At Monday’s event Professor Les Mayhew of Cass Business School presented details of his proposal to create Personal Care Savings Bonds to help people save for the care costs they might need in their retirement. Innovative solutions such as these need to be looked at before the care time-bomb explodes and need to be considered hand-in-hand with the preventative public health messages mentioned above.    

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