In January 2021, a committee of the House of Lords published a report about the state of healthy aging in the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the report’s focus on the UK, an editorial in Great Britain’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, notes that the impediments to health aging identified in the report pose universal challenges.
The UK government issued a policy paper in 2017 that addressed key challenges that the government needed to confront. The paper addressed “global trends which will transform our future” and included lofty promises to bring various organizations and businesses together to “make a real difference to people’s lives.”
The paper identified the “aging society” as one of the great challenges that the UK faces. The paper promised to “harness the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an aging society.” It recognized “an obligation to help our older citizens lead independent, fulfilled lives, continuing to contribute to society.”
Confronting the Challenge of an Aging Society
To confront the challenge, the UK government purported to commit itself to a difficult mission: “Ensure that people can enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest.” The mission would succeed if “people remain independent for longer, continue to participate through work and within their communities, and stay connected to others to counter the epidemic of loneliness.”
Those are important goals. Unfortunately, the House of Lords’ committee report suggests that little concrete progress is being made in the UK or elsewhere in the world to advance that mission.
The report found that “improving healthy life expectancy is a vital and worthy ambition,” but lamented the “minimal progress” that the UK government has made in achieving that goal. The report noted that the British are living a bit longer but are spending those extra years in poor health.
Healthy Aging During a Pandemic
Life expectancy in the United States has actually declined because of the pandemic. Due largely to the half million deaths caused by COVID-19, life expectancy at birth has declined by 1.13 years to 77.48 years of age. Life expectancy for someone who has reached the age of 65 has declined by .87 years, from 19.4 more years of life to 18.5 more years.
While the pandemic is a barrier to healthy aging, that barrier might be overcome within the year if the promise of widespread vaccination is realized. Unfortunately, a different barrier has impeded the vaccination of seniors. The Lancet editorial points to a problem that SeniorCareAdvice recently discussed: the difficulty that some seniors have experienced in navigating technology to sign up for vaccinations.
Another issue that confounds public health officials in both the US and the UK is the inequality of healthy aging outcomes. Even with the UK’s assurance of access to healthcare for all, people of means tend to remain in better health as they age than people who live in poverty. A recent study that compared healthy aging based on income and wealth in four countries found than disparities were less significant in the UK and Japan than in the United States and China.
Race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are factors that determine whether groups of people will age in good health. The Lancet editorial points out that aging people who have access to technology, healthcare, and palliative care — specialized care to improve quality of life and mitigate suffering — have better outcomes than those who don’t.
Call to Action
The Lancet editorial applauded the House of Lords for making concrete recommendations to meet the goal of making healthy aging a reality for everyone. Many of those recommendations call for increased government funding of essential research: studying the mechanism of aging, as opposed to age-related diseases; ending the exclusion of older people from clinical trials; and studying the social and environmental factors that affect health as people age.
Aging well is a goal that affects every life. Aging is inevitable. As the editorial reminds us, we are all on a continuum of age. “Achieving older life,” the editorial states, “should be something that we aspire to and celebrate, not fear.”
To assure that every person enjoys the same opportunity to age well, however, both government and the private sector must be committed to the principle that society must treat all of its members fairly and equally. Investing in research and programs that help every member of society age well should be a goal not just in the UK, but in every nation.