15 May 2020
Our Chief Executive, Dr Anna Dixon, asks what it will take to achieve the goal of five more years of disability-free life expectancy for all.
Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong took a ‘small step’ that marked a new era in the history of humanity, as the USA put a man on the moon for the first time. That step was the result of an unprecedented mobilisation of government resources, businesses, civilian and military scientists and engineers, spurred on by Cold War rivalry in pursuit of what had seemed, just a few short years before, an utterly fantastic goal.
That series of events, and its iconic result, are often held up as an example of what’s possible when a country’s economy and society are geared full-throttle towards a common goal. And there is no shortage of challenges today which require mobilisation on that scale.
From climate change to widening inequalities, we face an array of pressing issues which demand nothing less than a moon-landing scale response. Often dangerously overlooked among these is the colossal demographic shift which is set to radically transform the UK’s economy and society in the years to come. A baby boy born in 1916 in England could have expected to live to about 58. A baby boy born in 2016 can expect to see his 90th birthday. Since 2017, for the first time in history, there have been more people aged 60 and over than there are aged 19 and below.
If we are to make the most of our longer lives it vital that we have good health. That’s why at the Centre for Ageing Better, we’ve set a goal that requires ambition and drive to rival the space race: by 2035, we want people to have five more years of disability-free life expectancy – and to reduce the gap in disability-free life expectancy between the richest and poorest in society. This is a goal we share with government who have set out a similar mission.
To do so, we must challenge our assumptions about the structure of our lives, from careers and retirement to education. And in their place, we need to build workplaces, homes and communities which allow everyone to enjoy these extra years of life.
At the Centre for Ageing Better, we’ve set a goal that requires ambition and drive to rival the space race: by 2035, we want people to have five more years of disability-free life expectancy.
It will require joint action from business and government, the best minds in research and science, and the creative and innovative energy of industry to achieve this mission. The government has rightly recognised the scale and urgency of this issue, identifying ageing as one of four ‘Grand Challenges’ facing us today and investing over £300 million in meeting it.
But it’s clear that the toughest – and most crucial – part of this challenge will be closing the yawning gap between the richest and the poorest in society. Today, the poorest men aged 50 and over are three times more likely than the wealthiest to have chronic heart disease, twice as likely to have type 2 diabetes or arthritis, and almost four times more likely to need help with activities like washing and dressing. Boys born in Blackpool can expect to spend 55 years of their life disability free, compared to 71 for boys born in Sutton; girls born in Nottingham can expect 54 disability-free years, compared to nearly 70 for those born in Wandsworth.
These shocking inequalities are not inevitable. We need a strong focus on prevention, with much bolder action by government to tackle the risk factors for poor health in later life, by for example raising the legal age for purchase of tobacco products, regulating to require food reformulation to reduce sugar and salt content, and introducing minimum unit pricing on alcohol. We need to get people moving, by ensuring access to (safe) green spaces, active travel and public transport. And we also need major investment in upgrading homes that are cold, damp and hazardous to health, improving the quality and security of jobs, and creating inclusive economic growth in communities across the country.
We need a strong focus on prevention, with much bolder action by government to tackle the risk factors for poor health in later life.
Getting this right requires serious political will, and the resources to back it up. If we act now, and act decisively, we can secure healthier, longer lives for everyone. But waste this opportunity and we risk watching inequalities deepen, with the benefits of a good later life reserved for the richest in society.
The massive increases in life expectancy we’ve seen over the last century are a miraculous achievement, a product of shared human endeavour in fighting preventable diseases and improving public health. Now we need a collective effort to rival the one that put a man on the moon to make sure the extra years we’ve won are healthy, fulfilling, and shared by all.