Challenging assumptions of health and ageing

The recent publication of the latest ONS figures on average life expectancy have become familiar reading. How long you are likely to live is still heavily dependent on where in the country you live. A woman who is 65 living in Kensington and Chelsea can reasonably expect to live another 25 years, while a woman of the same age in Manchester can expect just under 19.

Without some recognition of the variability of ageing, we risk continuing the characterisation of health and wellbeing in later life as a rapid downward spiral. This underpins the many statements about the “burden” of an ageing society, or the pressure that older people place on essential services.

This can explain anxieties many people have of “getting old”; of people assuming it is only in earlier life that we can enjoy being active; or that becoming isolated at home is an inevitable part of ageing.

We name the chapter in Age UK’s Agenda for Later Life 2015 report, “Feeling well”, to challenge these assumptions. In challenging the idea that older age automatically means poor health, but also in not allowing those that do have health challenges to be written off. Rooting the principle of supporting people to age well by talking about the things they can do, rather than what they cannot.

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Closing the gap

This is not to be naïve about the challenges that can arise as we get older. You are more likely to live with one or more long-term conditions and our overall resilience can dip, especially in late old age.

However, in both cases, the extent to which these can cause problems can be reduced. There is already huge variation across the country in how long we live in good health. A woman can expect to live to 80 without a disability in the local authority with the best average figures, or just 71 in the authority with the worst.

Through this lens, the debate about the challenges of more of us living longer is more about disability and poor health than it is purely ageing. And as much as we would abhor the idea of not supporting disabled people of any age to lead active lives, so we should abhor the same idea aimed at older people.

Closing the gap between areas of high and low healthy life expectancy will mean healthy behaviours across the life-course as well as substantial progress on deeply embedded health inequalities. But there is extensive evidence showing that improvements can be made to your health and longevity whatever your age.

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Prevention is better than cure

Likewise, staying active in later life has significant physical and mental health benefits yet one recent study suggested that only 10-15% of people over 65 do the minimum recommended level of activity.

Furthermore, if we consider that 80% of strokes are avoidable; or that 80% of cases of type 2 diabetes can be avoided or delayed, then making progress on achieving healthy later lives is being almost wilfully missed.

Doubly-so when you consider that the government this year announced cuts to public health budgets of £200 million while at the same time setting optimistic efficiency targets for the NHS.

Setting a new narrative on health in late life is vital if we’re to make sure the many more of us living into late old age is seen as the positive achievement, and opportunity, that it is.

Making tackling loneliness a priority

Most people feel lonely at some point in their lives, although it is usually temporary. However, for one in ten older people over the age of 65, loneliness is a chronic issue, with a potentially devastating impact on their health and wellbeing. This can lead to greater pressure on our already stretched NHS and social care services.

Loneliness is not an inevitable part of ageing. Although we are more likely to be lonely in older age due to common life experiences such as bereavement, loss of mobility, or poor health, loneliness can be effectively prevented and/or reduced.

We want local and national government to prioritise addressing loneliness in later life by putting in place a national measure and appropriate local strategies, supporting GPs to deliver practical help, and investing in innovative solutions.

We also have a key role to play as individuals, families and communities in combating it – that’s why we’re asking everyone to join us in taking action through our No One Should Have No One campaign.

Giving people with dementia the support they need to live well

Around 850,000 people in the UK are estimated to be living with dementia and this figure is likely to increase as more of us live longer lives. Despite a growing focus on dementia among policy-makers and improvements in diagnosis rates, people with the condition and their carers still find it hard to access good-quality care and support, or to lead as active a life in the community as they potentially could.

Unlike in Scotland, there are currently no minimum requirements in England as to what advice and emotional and practical support people should receive post-diagnosis. Age UK is urging the Government to introduce a minimum standard so that everyone who receives a diagnosis is supported come to terms with the life-changing news, plan for the future and live well with dementia.

Find out more in Agenda for Later Life 2015, Age UK’s annual assessment of how public policy is meeting the needs of older people.

Author: Tom Gentry

Policy adviser - health services @tomogentry

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