A recent study has shown that, although average lifespan has increased, the period that older people spend in good health and able to work has not necessarily extended at the same rate

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A new study has predicted a widening gap between overall life expectancy and healthy working life expectancy (HWLE), suggesting that although average lifespan has increased, the period that older people spend in good health and able to work has not necessarily extended at the same rate. The study, published as a research letter in Nature Aging, has important implications for policy-makers.

Details of the study

For the study, a team led by Dr Marty Lynch of the School of Medicine at Keele University used data from the Health Survey for England to estimate future trends in overall life expectancy and HWLE from 50–75 years of age for men and women in England between 2015 and 2035.

Life expectancy from age 50 for men was 26.20 years in 1996, 30.60 years in 2015, and 31.60 years in 2018. It was projected to be 31.97 years in 2020 and 34.70 years in 2035. For women, life expectancy from age 50 was 30.39 years in 1996, 33.65 years in 2015, 34.51 years in 2018, and projected as 34.79 years in 2020 and 36.72 years in 2035.

In comparison, the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) 2018-based estimates of life expectancy from age 50 by 2035 were 33.5 years for men and 36.0 years for women. Thus the authors’ projected life expectancy was 1.20 years higher than ONS estimates for men and 0.72 years higher for women.

The team calculated that HWLE for men from age 50 increased from 6.93 in 1996 to 8.94 in 2014, and was projected to increase to 8.67 years in 2015, 8.85 years in 2020, and 9.05 years in 2035.  Equivalent figures for women were 4.94 in 1996, 6.85 in 2014, 7.49 in 2015, 7.74 in 2020, and 8.57 in 2035.

Demographic forecasting methods gave projections of increasing life expectancy per calendar year from age 50, averaging 10.7 weeks (0.21 years) for men and 6.4 weeks (0.12 years) for women. However, HWLE gains were projected to increase at a slower pace, with an average of 1 week (0.02 years) per year for men and 2.8 weeks (0.05 years) per year for women over the same period.

Implications for pension policy

‘Average HWLE gains are not expected to keep pace with average life expectancy gains, meaning a likely decrease over time in the percentage of life expectancy from age 50 spent healthy and in work,’ the researchers said.

The widening gap ‘suggests that working lives are not necessarily extending in line with policy goals, which may result in an increase in older adults requiring benefits due to being unhealthy or out of work’, the team concluded.

Dr Lynch told Medscape UK: ‘Further research is needed to identify the key drivers and barriers of HWLE, so that evidence-based initiatives can be put in place to improve population health, wellbeing, and work opportunities. Such interventions will be necessary with the state pension age rising.

‘It is important that we understand the implications of this policy decision on people in the population, and what initiatives might help enable people to stay healthy and in work for longer than expected.’

Dr Lynch gave examples of work factors that might impact how long people can stay healthy and in work, including opportunities for part-time or flexible working, the types of job roles available, the number of job opportunities, whether individuals have time-consuming caring responsibilities, and health and lifestyle factors. 

‘Poor health is a major reason why people leave work before the state pension age, especially after the age of 50, so it will be important to maintain a healthy workforce for policy goals to extend working lives to be successful,’ she said.

‘State pension age increasing and leaving HWLE behind is likely to mean that at least some groups in the population are likely to find waiting longer to receive this financial support challenging.’

Generation X perhaps not as healthy as baby boomers

In an accompanying editorial to the paper, Professor John Rowe of Columbia University in New York and Dr Lisa Berkman of Harvard University noted that there is also some evidence that more recent birth cohorts of men and women who are now middle-aged may not be as healthy as current retirees, at least in the United States. They may, therefore, have a ‘less-optimistic future’ compared to those currently over 60 years of age.

‘The findings reported by Lynch et al in this issue emphasize the riskiness of blindly advancing retirement age without a concomitant set of policies and programs to support workers and retirees,’ they warned.

Commenting on the paper, Professor Thomas Scharf, Professor of Social Gerontology at Newcastle University, told Medscape UK: ‘The growing gap between life expectancy and healthy working life expectancy is a major challenge for ageing societies. Expecting people to work longer whilst in poor health raises important questions, not only about necessary adaptations to work places, but also in relation to the deep-seated inequalities that mark later life.

‘The risks of ill health are distributed unevenly across society, with people living in the most disadvantaged communities, for example, having much poorer health and higher rates of disability than those living in more advantaged areas. These data should be a central feature of debates about changes in pension policy.’

This article was originally published on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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