Government must act now to delay onset of age-related diseases
If the government is serious about its Ageing Society Grand Challenge, it must tackle health inequalities head on, writes Baroness Young. | PA Images
People are living longer, but many of these extra years are spent in poor health. The priority for both public health and economic policy interventions need to be those living in deprivation.
The exciting findings of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology report into healthy ageing should be that new medications and drug repurposing – where the UK is has a leading role - has huge potential to delay or even reverse the onset of age-related diseases.
AI, robotics and data driven technologies promise to deliver better support for us as we get older allowing us to live more independently. I look forward to chatting to my robot as it helps me get up the stairs. On the support technologies, however, it was notable that the uptake of current technologies hasn’t increased over the years. Promoting the adoption of the existing technologies would therefore be a good first step.
But the real messages are different and stark from the medical and technological opportunities. People are living longer, but many of these extra years are spent in poor health - increasingly with more than one health condition. For women, healthy life expectancy at birth has decreased in the past decade and improvements in healthy ageing have slowed for men.
The grittiest finding, shocking though not unexpected, is that there are big differences in healthy life expectancy between ethnic groups and that deprivation is a key factor. People from the most deprived groups spend almost 20 years longer in poor health than the least deprived. For the latter, good diet, active lifestyles, no smoking, and a healthy social life throughout earlier life mean more resilience into healthier later years.
At the heart of the roadmap must be a plan for reducing health inequalities over the next Parliament
For people from deprived communities, the future is all too often having multiple morbidities from middle age, spending years in poor health. This is made worse by poverty, lack of social support and fragmentation of care. We know about the lifestyle, environmental and economic factors across the life-course that correlate with good health in older age. The priority for both public health and economic policy interventions need to be those living in deprivation.
The government has adopted an Ageing Society Grand Challenge, to ensure people have five extra years of healthy life by 2035. On current performance, this will not be met.
The Committee’s report lays out how government needs to set out a clear roadmap on how to achieve the target and report annually to parliament and, indeed, to the nation, on progress. At the heart of the roadmap must be a plan for reducing health inequalities over the next Parliament. All communities need support to live more healthily throughout life, alongside a major push on poverty reduction. We have seen how deprivation and inequalities have meant that different communities have borne the brunt of the Covid pandemic.
Healthier ageing has many of the same dimensions, but just a slower burn. We live in a country where the gap between the haves and the have nots is one of the greatest in Europe and widening. If the government is serious about its Ageing Society Grand Challenge, it must tackle health inequalities head on, or the promising treatment and technological advances will be straws in the wind.
Baroness Young is a Labour member of the House of Lords and member of the Lords Science and Technology Committee.
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