I am one of the optimists of life. When I think of living to be 100, I imagine a birthday party where I am surrounded by my devoted descendants, perhaps followed by a commercial spaceflight as a celebration.
But I’m in the minority here. Many people would rather be dead. In a recent UK poll by Ipsos, only 35% of respondents said they wanted to become centenarians.
Men were more enthusiastic about the idea than women (43% vs. 28%) – really a shame, because women are more likely than men to achieve it. Age is also a factor: Older people are less likely to want to live to 100 than younger people, perhaps because they have had a taste of poor health before or have been through the experience to care for elderly parents who have suffered in their later years. . In the survey, less than one in five people thought they would have a good quality of life if they reached 100.
We all know that life expectancy has increased around the world over the past century due to advances in health and medicine as well as improved education and living standards. In the UK in 2020, the number of centenarians reached over 15,000, up almost a fifth from the previous year. But – as the number of people who don’t want to live to 100 clearly show – “healthy life expectancy” is probably a better measure of what people want to.
Healthy life expectancy – a measure of the number of years a person is expected to live in good health – is not a perfect measure, as it is based on health and death rates now rather than on projections of how they might change. But it’s still useful. What can he tell us?
First, although it has increased globally, it has not kept pace with improvements in overall life expectancy, according to a study of 195 countries between 1995 and 2017.
Second, women can outlive men, but the number of healthy years they can expect to live is very similar. In the EU, for example, the life expectancy of women in 2020 was on average 5.7 years higher than that of men, but the gap in healthy life expectancy was only one year.
Third, as with overall longevity, the correlation between healthy life expectancy and gross domestic product per capita becomes quite loose once countries pass a certain level of development. Greece and Germany have very similar healthy life expectancy figures, for example, even though Germany is significantly wealthier.
There are also strong differences between the neighbors. In 2020, a man born in Finland or Denmark could expect to live between 73 and 74% of his life without health limitations, a gross deal compared to the 90% offered in Sweden. Cultural factors play a role, from the Mediterranean diet in Greece to alcohol consumption in Finland.
In the UK, which ranked in the middle of EU countries before Brexit, things are not going well. In the years before the pandemic, healthy life expectancy had stagnated for men at 62.9 years and had started to decline slightly for women at 63.3 years.
The differences between rich and poor are also huge. In England, women living in the most deprived areas have a healthy life expectancy at birth of 51.4 years compared to 71.2 years for women living in the least deprived areas.
David Finch, deputy director of the Health Foundation, said UK policymakers should be “very worried” about the trend, given the country was hardly at the top of the charts to begin with. “When you can see this clear space for improvement and we stop improving, that’s especially concerning.”
There are many possible reasons why health has deteriorated, from the rise in obesity and alcohol abuse to the impact of public spending cuts after 2010 and the wider impact of a decade without real wage growth.
The fragile health of Britons has now become a problem for the labor market, with a growing share of people too sick to work. That’s a reason to be careful, of course. But we still should have been careful. Health is not only important because it has an impact on the economy; it’s important because that’s what people want.
The government has set an ambitious target to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035. Such rapid improvements are possible: it rose by four years in the first decade of the millennium . But it was a period of sustained economic growth and increased social spending. It’s hard to imagine what the next decade will look like, even for an optimist like me.