The end of the golden era in life expectancy

Usually, the headlines are all doom and gloom about how the population is ageing and we don't have enough working age people to pay for our old folk. Now, it seems, we're not living longer after all, and that too is a cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

Usually, the headlines are all doom and gloom about how the population is ageing and we don't have enough working age people to pay for our old folk. Now, it seems, we're not living longer after all, and that too is a cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth. New figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that for the first time in 30 years, we can't expect to live as long as our parents did - and certainly not for longer, as has been the trend for the last few decades.

Here's the good news - overall, a 65-year-old man in the UK can now expect to live to 83.5 years - almost 5½ more years than three decades ago. A woman of 65 can expect to live to 86 years - a gain of almost four years in last 30 years.

But in the last couple of years, the inexorable increase in longevity has stalled for men and reversed for women - the average life expectancy for a woman of 85 is 2½ months less than it was in 2011, and for an 85-year-old man, it's 5 weeks less. These figures might seem tiny, but if the trend continues, female life expectancy could drop by two years in the next decade.

Perhaps logically, the longer you live, the longer you can expect to live. If a man reaches 75, he can expect to live to 86.6, and if he survives to 85, he can expect to live to 90.8. For women, the equivalent figures are a life expectancy of 88.1 if she reaches 75 and almost 92 if she survives to 85.

The blame, according to most doctors and scientists, lies with the habits of the 'baby boomer' population. After all the austerity of the post-war years, the 1950s and 1960s saw women in particular take up smoking with alacrity. Forty years ago, 51% of men and 41% of women smoked. Those figures have now dropped to 20% for both sexes, but our older folk are living with the legacy of smoking-related health harms - women are now more likely to die from lung cancer than breast cancer, with 16,000 deaths from lung cancer each year compared with 12,000 from breast cancer. In addition, about three million people in the UK have the chronic lung condition COPD, usually caused by smoking, and many of them will die from it.

Alcohol habits are another major social change for which we are paying the price. Alcohol today is nearly 61% more affordable than it was in 1980, and older adults are far more likely than their parents to drink every day. Alcohol-related hospital admissions among men and women in their 60s have tripled in a decade. Charities for older people have also highlighted reductions in state-funded social care and variable quality of care homes as factors to consider.

The youngsters among us may feel complacent - after all, smoking rates have more than halved in the last 40 years and you might reassure yourself that this drop in life expectancy is a blip. But for me, these figures are a stark warning of what is to come in a decade or two. The obesity epidemic which has gripped the UK for the last 30 years, with a doubling of the number of adults in the obese category from one in eight to one in four within 20 years, and almost three quarters of adults now overweight or obese, has hardly started to kick in as far as death rates are concerned. Being overweight hugely increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, which now accounts for 10% of the spending in the NHS, up from just five per cent a decade ago. Eighty per cent of the cost of type 2 diabetes comes from the cost of treating complications, many of them long-term. If we don't act now to reverse our ever-expanding waistlines, the results could be disastrous.

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