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It's Time We All Benefit From Demographic Change

27/05/2016 09:27 | Updated 27 May 2016

"We're all living longer". You'll have heard the phrase trotted out to explain everything from the rise in the state pension age to the challenges facing the NHS.

But a new report shows that we're not all benefiting from this increase in longevity in the same way - and the gap in life expectancies between rich and poor is growing.

The study by Cass Business School and the International Longevity Centre-UK (ILC-UK) is just the latest indication that society is failing to respond to the demographic changes that advances in science are able to achieve. And it should prompt us all to think differently.

In 2014, Anchor's Grey Pride Manifesto highlighted a range of areas where more joined-up thinking from government could benefit individuals and save the state money. For example, better use of care homes and retirement housing to enable people to leave hospital.

The growing disparity between the life expectancies of rich and poor takes this one stage further. Consider, for example, entitlement to the state pension.

Is it right that a wealthier person enjoying a long period of retirement should receive significantly more support through the state pension over the course of their life than a poorer person who is more likely to die younger - and is, by definition, in greater financial need? The same question could be asked with regard to other "universal" benefits.

Intergenerational fairness continues to be a hot topic. But we are failing as a society if we don't do more to consider the growing gap in lifespan between richest and poorest - a gap that, according to the report, is increasing for the first time since the 1870s.

If that weren't a tricky enough dilemma then consider the causes of this expanding gulf.

"The blame for the widening must be laid increasingly at the door of individual lifestyles," says the report. Smoking and diet are among the main causes, it finds.

So, one could argue, it's largely self-inflicted. It's not that simple.

A survey published by the Campaign to End Loneliness highlights that loneliness and isolation are as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's a shocking statistic and emphasises that making the right choices in terms of diet may be a symptom, rather than a cause, of the growing disparity between ageing for richer and poorer people.

Evidence shows that decent, well-designed retirement housing can have a positive impact on people's wellbeing - and save money for the state. Conversely, living in unsuitable housing puts people at risk of accident or injury - resulting in unnecessary hospital admissions.

The Building Research Establishment estimates that poor housing costs the NHS at least £1.4billion each year. And, as Anchor's work with the think-tank Localis found, once hospitalised many people end up stuck there for much longer than necessary.

More retirement housing, to rent and to buy, would have a big impact. So too would more integration of health, social care and housing to better prioritise services which prevent the need for more high-cost interventions from the NHS.

Advances in science and knowledge that have enabled many people to live longer, healthier lives are among our greatest achievements. Ensuring the benefits are shared among us all fairly is, perhaps, our greatest challenge.

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