That everyone is living longer is a fantastic achievement. Not just for individuals, but for society. We have seen incredible advances in life expectancy – and in 15 years, the UK will have 1.2m more people aged 85 than today.
But there is no point living those extra years if we spend them in poor health, or managing a disability that could have been prevented.
Today, a 65-year-old can expect to spend around a decade of later life in poor health, and research published last week shows that there will be a million over-65s requiring round-the-clock care by 2035.
There is also a shameful gap in healthy life expectancy between rich and poor. People living in areas like Kensington and Chelsea can enjoy on average 18 more years of good health compared to people in places like Blackpool or Manchester.
Good health is fundamental to quality of life. It allows us to work, stay socially active, and do things that we love.
The government has stated its ambition to ensure that people can enjoy “five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035”.
Doing this will require transformative action and a strategic, forward-thinking approach to healthy ageing.
There are three areas where we need to act.
First, we can reduce the time people spend dependent on care by helping them be healthier in mid-life. That means bolder, faster action needs to be taken on four of the biggest contributors to ill-health in later life: physical inactivity, poor diet, smoking, and alcohol.
Second, when people experience a sudden decline in health and end up in hospital, they need support to keep active and prevent loss of functional abilities, such as using the toilet unaided. Using Helpforce volunteers to get patients moving in wards has huge potential.
Community-based services must do more to support people discharged from hospital in order to reduce their chances of being re-admitted and to prevent spiralling care needs.
Part of the challenge is tackling ageist attitudes among health professionals, some of whom believe functional decline is a normal part of ageing that can’t be prevented.
This misconception may prevent a focus on rehabilitating older people, reducing their chances of recovering to live independently.
Finally, we need to recognise the role our environment plays in helping us to maintain our functional ability. This could mean installing a walk-in shower so we can continue to wash without help from a care worker. It could require adjustments in the workplace so we don’t have to stop working.
Businesses must wake up to the economic opportunities of longer lives.
Over-50s households contributed half of consumer spending in 2016, some £473bn. And enabling people to be in fulfilling work for longer provides increased tax revenues and lowers the welfare bill by reducing spend on out of work benefits.
Halving the employment gap between workers aged 50 to state pension age and those in their late-40s could boost nominal GDP by one per cent (up to £20bn per year).
We need products and services that are inclusive and help older consumers to stay independent.
By supporting people to be healthy as they get older, regardless of where they live or what their background, we can enable more people to enjoy extra years living happy, healthy and independent lives. And we might just avert the social care crisis.