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Why is the rise in life expectancy slowing

Tagged In:  Allied Health

A recent report by the UCL Institute of Health Equity shows that the rate of increase in life expectancy has slowed significantly. Is there a simple reason why?

The 2017 Marmot Indicators Briefing has highlighted a worrying trend in one of the key health measures: life expectancy. After several years of continuous improvement, the rate of increase seems to have flattened out. Estimates show that a one-year increase in life expectancy at birth is now seen every 10 years for women and six years for men. In 2010 the rate was every five years and every three and a half years respectively.

At age 65, the rate was one year every six years for women and every five years for men. But that has slowed to a one-year increase every 16 years for women and every nine years for men. 

The authors of the report believe that deaths in old age, and particularly deaths from dementia, are driving this trend. In an ageing population, the overall proportion of people dying will inevitably increase. Deaths of over 85s where dementia was a factor rose by around 175% for men and 250% for men between 2002 and 2015.

Many people have pointed out that the slowing down of increases in life expectancy coincides with a period during which the UK experienced one of its most serious recessions and the government's programme of austerity was introduced. However, the Institute of Health Equity resists coming to this conclusion without further evidence.

"What I would conclude, though, is that less generous spending on social care and health will have adverse impacts on quality of life of the elderly," wrote UCL's Professor Sir Michael Marmot in a recent blog for the Huffington Post. "It is urgent to determine whether austerity also shortens lives." 

Because of the ageing population, doctors and nurses across the UK are dealing with more complex, long-term illnesses. The NHS is focused on new models of care to respond to the challenge. However, people's lifestyles can be a major risk factor in developing serious illness, such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease or stroke. Therefore, it's also about education, for example encouraging people to eat more healthily and take regular exercise.

A recent study published in the American medical journal Health Affairs concluded that people who don't smoke, are not obese and consume alcohol moderately can expect to live seven years longer than the general population, and to spend most of these extra years in good health.

"Improvements in medical technology are often thought to be the gatekeeper to healthier, longer life," commented one of the researchers, Mikko Myrskylä, Director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. "We showed that a healthy lifestyle, which costs nothing, is enough to enable individuals to enjoy a very long and healthy life."

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