Today the House of Lords published an extremely worrying report into the prospect for millions of elderly people being able to enjoy a healthy old age.
I had not realised that Theresa May’s government had committed in 2017 to the Ageing Society Grand Challenge – a promise by 2035 that everybody in the country should be able to enjoy an extra five years good health in retirement. I have a feeling like the notice of the first raising of the pension age it has had little publicity.
Readers of my blog who have followed the BackTo60 campaign to get 3.8 million women born in the 1950s full restitution for their lost pensions will greet this aim with a hollow laugh – given there is growing anecdotal evidence that many women in their early 60s are already falling ill while working before they can even claim their pension. I wrote a blog about the figures in 2018 – see here.
But what this report confirms is not only that life expectancy has flatlined since 2011 but prospects for a healthy retirement has got worse particularly for the poor. The report reveals that the chances for a man to get an extra five years healthy retirement will take not 14 years as promised by the challenge but an incredible 75 years. They will be long dead by 2096.
For a woman it is actually worse – chances of having an extra five years healthy retirement is receding and getting worse by the day.
Figures in the report confirm what the Office for National Statistics has disclosed that Britain is slipping down the league table of advanced countries for those living longer – with men, who on average die earlier than women, have a higher increase in longevity than women. See my blog on this here.
Growing equality gap between rich and poor areas
But what is deeply disturbing is the huge gap between those in wealthy and deprived areas.
The report says: “In England in the period 2016–18, the difference in life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas was 9.5 years for males and 7.5 years for females. The differences in healthy life expectancy are 18.9 years for males and 19.4 years for females.”
The report notes: “the health situation is somewhat similar to other countries that have experienced
political, social and economic disruption and widening social and economic inequalities.” The report also noted that “in some of the key social determinants, inequalities are widening in England”.
The largest killer of men is heart disease and for women it is Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Heart disease deaths are falling while dementia is on the rise which explains the changes in longevity.
In a 2016 analysis of 20 countries, females in the UK had the lowest rate of improvement in life expectancy, followed by those in the USA. For males, the UK had the second-lowest rate of improvement,
after the USA.
The report concludes:” Inequalities in healthy life expectancy are stark, with people in the least deprived groups living more than 18 years longer in good health than those in the most deprived groups.”
This also hit ethnic minorities very badly as evidence given by Professor Chris Whitty , the chief medical officer to peers. He told them: “People from ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty in older age; 29% of Asian or Asian British people and 33% of Black or Black British people over the age of 65 live in poverty, compared with 14% of White people.”
Will it get better or worse?
So what is to be done and will it get worse ? For a start it will get worse because of Covid19 as the report was mainly written before the pandemic took hold and it is known that Covid killed disproportionately larger numbers of the elderly saving the DWP over £600m a year in pension payouts. In a postscript to the report the peers from science and technology committee say both short term and long term effects are an unknown.
On the positive side new technologies and robotics and new drug trials to treat diseases promise to make life better for the elderly provided they can access them.
Peers warn that unless growing inequality is tackled by the government – these benefits could widen the gap between rich and poor as wealthier pensioners would be able to benefit while the poor would be left behind.
The report also exposes the lack of a government strategy at the top to tackle this.
Peers say: “The Government is not on track to achieve the Ageing Society Grand Challenge mission to ensure five years of extra healthy life by 2035 while reducing inequalities, and does not appear to be monitoring progress towards the mission. It is hard to see how the target could be met without significant changes to the way it is managed.”
For those who criticise the House of Lords as an irrelevant institution – this report shows the House working at its best – it is a very thorough, well researched report – drawing attention to an overlooked issue and warning the government that it needs urgently to act to take this seriously. Whether it will, given the complacency of some ministers, is another matter.
The full report can be accessed here.