By Rachel Kayani
In recent years there has been a lot in the press about the need to plan for Britain’s ageing population. From lack of pension funds to resources in healthcare and social housing the general picture has been one of an impending burden that we are not prepared for. Given that the number of people aged 70 and over is predicted to rise, it would be prudent to plan for the ageing population but researchers from the University of Edinburgh say that it may not be as bad as we have predicted, and their research has shown that the number of dependent older people in the UK has actually fallen by a third in the past four decades.
In what appears to be positive news for once, Professor John MacInnes and senior research fellow Jeroen Spijker, report that the number of elderly dependent on care has in fact fallen and that the ratio of working adults to dependent pensioners is improving.
In their paper (published in the British Medical Journal) they argue that one of the main reasons that the ageing population may not have such an impact, as had been predicted, is because people had assumed that all pensioners are dependent and all working-age adults are workers. They point out that, while it is true there are now more people over 65 in the UK than children under 15, rising life expectancy means older people are effectively “younger”, healthier and fitter than previous generations.
As life expectancy has grown the researchers looked not at what age someone was but on how long they might be expected to live. They reasoned that attitudes to life and health were more strongly associated with remaining life expectancy than to age.
Previously, people born in 1900 had a life expectancy of 52 years for males and 57 years for females, whereas today that has risen to 79 and 83 years respectively. So the point at which we feel we have entered ‘old’ age has changed.
Previously the old age dependency ratio (OADR) was worked out by dividing the number of people of state pension age by the number of people of working age (16-64 years). Instead of using this the researchers calculated an alternative measure, what they call “the real elderly dependency ratio”, based on the sum of men and women with a remaining life expectancy of up to 15 years divided by the number of people in employment, irrespective of age.
Using this measure, the paper calculates that old-age dependency in the UK fell by one third over the past four decades – and is likely to stabilise close to its current level. Thus their results produce quite different conclusions about the impact of the ageing population.
The authors state that the standard indicator of population OADR, wrongly assumes that all people that have reached state pension age are dependent, ignoring the fact that improved life expectancies have led to older people being healthier and economically self-sufficient for longer. In fact the 2011 census showed that 1.4 million people of state pension age in the UK were in employment, which is almost double what it was just two decades earlier. And 16% of people aged between 65 and 74 years were economically active.
“Our calculations show that – over the past four decades – the population far from ageing, has in fact been getting younger, with increasing numbers of people in work for every older person or child,” the authors say.
They conclude that in policy terms, this analysis to one of the central challenges of an ageing population might be something of a game changer. Rather than seeing longevity itself as an expensive problem, focus could shift towards managing morbidity and remaining life expectancy. Equally, using age to define the adult working populations makes little sense, the authors suggest, because “there are more dependents of working age (9.5 million) than there are older people who do not work.”
Just over half of all pensioners describe themselves as being in good health and, while demand for elderly care services is rising, the BMJ article suggests the key drivers in deciding the impact on care budgets will be medical knowledge and technology.
However, the study will surprise many care organisations who see the ageing population as one of the UK’s key challenges over the coming decades, particularly in relation to the rising number of people diagnosed with age related illnesses such as diabetes and dementia and the need for suitable housing for the very elderly and infirm.