The proportion of life spent in good health has declined and ill health and disability have been on the rise in recent decades, according to a new report published by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC).

The research project, led by Newcastle University and funded by The Dunhill Medical Trust, investigates the trends in longevity, disability, and dependence between 1991 and 2011. The research also explores how these trends relate to long-term conditions and socioeconomic inequalities.

It found that inequalities in disability between richest and poorest in the UK have more than tripled in past decades.

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The report argues there is need for urgent action to support people to live not just longer, but healthier lives as part of the Government’s plans to build back better from the pandemic.

Many measures of life expectancy have improved 

The estimated overall life expectancy at birth has increased for both men and women from 72.9 years in 1990 to 79.2 years in 2017 for UK men, and from 78.5 years in 1990 to 82.7 years in 2017 for women.

Both genders have seen increases in total time spent in good health. Between 1990 and 2017, healthy life expectancy at birth grew by 4.4 years for men (to 68.5) and by 2.7 years for women (to 70.0).

Between 1991 and 2011, men gained 1.7 years of independent life, and women gained 0.2 years.

But while there have been increases in life expectancy and time spent in good health over the past decades, these gains haven’t kept up with those for general life expectancy. In other words, ill health and disability have been increasing while the proportion of life spent in good health and free from disability has been declining. Moreover, ILC’s report highlights that changes in life expectancy haven’t been equal.

Dr Brian Beach, Senior Research Fellow at ILC and report author, said: “Increased longevity is a success story, but the opportunities that stem from this will not be maximised if the extra years are spent in poor health or with increased levels of disability and dependency. Our new report – unfortunately – provides further evidence that the UK’s position in this respect is worsening, with gains in overall years outpacing gains in healthy years.

“Moreover, the research reinforces the lessons that have been made stark through the course of the pandemic – that socioeconomic inequalities remain prevalent, with the least advantaged members of society suffering from worse outcomes. A key finding here is how the most advantaged have seen improvements while the least advantaged saw little change.

“As the UK moves into recovery from Covid-19, political pledges to ‘build back better’ will only be fulfilled if policies actively reduce the kinds of inequalities that have grown since the financial crisis over a decade ago.”

For more articles on age related disability go to our health inequality section