Author Mark Richards

Is increasing life expectancy good news? Or will it ultimately put too much strain on health, social care – and our bank accounts?

Welcome to Ikaria, a Greek island about 30 miles from the Turkish coast. Beautiful beaches, olive groves, rocky cliffs… Ikaria is much like any other small Greek island – with one crucial difference. People on Ikaria live for a very long time: on average, 10 years longer than the rest of Europe. It’s one of five small areas in the world where the local population live significantly long lives – with one in three Ikarians living into their 90s.

Over the years scientists, biologists and ordinary people who just want to live longer have trekked to Ikaria in search of their secret. But now it looks like they won’t need to bother anymore – because according to research from Imperial College, London and the World Health Organisation, more and more of us will be living into our 90s.

On the face of it, that is great news – but ever-increasing life expectancy in the developed world could have serious implications for all of us. It has implications for health, for social care, for society as whole – and ultimately for our bank accounts. Increasing life expectancy is going to prove very expensive.

By 2030 – only 13 years away – average life expectancy will have risen in the developed world, with some countries breaking through the ‘90 barrier,’ according to the work done at Imperial.

Increased life expectancy: the winners and losers

South Korea is expected to lead the way. According to Professor Majid Ezzati of Imperial, South Korea is a country “that has really got it right on healthcare. They seem better at dealing with hypertension and have some of the lowest obesity rates in the world.” Contrast this with the United States (the only developed country without universal health care) which will have one of the lowest life expectancies among developed countries, on a par with middle-income countries like Mexico and Croatia.

What about the UK? In 2010 life expectancy for men in the UK was 78: by 2030 the researchers are predicting it will have risen to 83. For women in the UK, the comparable figures are 83 and 87 – with men closing the ‘life expectancy gap’ thanks to healthier lifestyles and a reduction in smoking. The UK is behind other major European countries like Germany and France: it is also significantly behind countries like Switzerland, Australia and Japan. In the World Health Organisation ‘life expectancy league table’ for 2015 the UK is in 20th place overall – sandwiched between Ireland and Belgium. The UK ranks 16th for male life expectancy but languishes in 27th place for female life expectancy.

But the clear winner in the long life stakes is South Korea, whereby 2030 men are expected to have a life expectancy approaching 85 with women living into their 90s.

Wherever you live, though, the implications of people living longer are the same: it’s going to place a huge burden on society, in both financial and health terms.

The UK pension time bomb

We wrote recently about the UK Government’s green paper, which might ultimately lead to pensioners’ income from defined benefit (DB) pension scheme being reduced.

The vast majority of DB pension schemes pay index linked pensions: the implications of paying an index linked pension to someone who retires at 60 and lives until they are 90 are considerable. We are rapidly approaching the point at which large numbers of people will be spending nearly as long in their retirement as they did in their working life.

pension time bomb

The implications are equally clear for those with private pensions or Defined Contribution company schemes. More time in retirement means greater pension contributions from both the employer and the employee. And can we expect to see the retirement age rise again in the future? Almost certainly.

The challenge for the NHS

“The fact that we will continue to live longer means we need to think about strengthening the health and social care systems to support an ageing population with multiple health needs,” said Professor Ezzati.

‘Multiple health needs’ may be an understatement. We have all heard of very elderly people being successfully treated for conditions that would have been fatal even a few years ago. The challenge for developed countries is to make sure that if people are going to live longer, those extra years are going to healthy. And that means both physical and mental health.

The rising cost of social care

More and more old people are living alone – and what’s been dubbed the ‘loneliness epidemic’ has far-reaching implications. Bizarrely, in an age where social media lets you instantly ‘chat’ to someone on the other side of the world, we are losing touch with the people who live next door.  Old people who live alone inevitably place a greater burden on social services – and they are more likely to be ill.

Local councils are already threatening record council tax rises as they struggle with an ever-increasing social care bill and a shortage of housing. Both of these problems will be with us for the foreseeable future.

What about the very long-term?

So far, so worrying – but there could be even worse news to come. “Many people used to believe that 90 years is the upper limit for life expectancy, but this research suggests we will break the 90-year-barrier,” Prof Ezzati said. “We repeatedly hear that improvements in human longevity are about to come to an end (but) I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the upper limit of life expectancy – if there even is one.”

The Government faces a dilemma. On the one hand it clearly has a duty to the health of the population: conversely, the more the health of the population improves so people live longer and ultimately cost the government far more money. We have recently seen the advice to eat ten – not five – units of fruit and veg a day. Why? Because then we will live longer. But if we all live longer it costs the Government more in the long run: perhaps a hard-nosed Chancellor will shortly be advising us to sit on the sofa and eat a deep-fried Mars Bar…

What is certain is that no Chancellor can repeatedly turn to today’s working population, who are currently facing a ‘triple-whammy:’ bringing up their children, taking care of their own financial future and very possibly needing to help their increasingly old parents.