Life expectancy and loneliness in later life - visually challenged policy making?

5 March 2014

Ageing society and increasing life expectancy. Two phrases commonly used to describe the apparently inexorable demographic changes currently taking place in the UK and many other countries around the world. I’ve used them myself and they form a policy “given”, from which likely issues such as loneliness, likely prevalence of ill health, and costs of care for older people are subsequently discussed and estimated.

So it was of real interest to hear that for the first time since 2003 life expectancy has fallen over the last two years. Perhaps it’s just a blip but it’s certainly worth considering Oxford University Professor, Danny Dorling’s comments linking this fall with the impact of austerity and cuts in public services.

Also recently reported was  The Guardian's article Loneliness twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people in The Guardian. In a study of 2,000 people over the age of 50, those who reported being lonely were 14% more likely to have an early death. Yet, surprisingly for The Guardian, they only mentioned in passing that poverty increased the likelihood of an early death by 19%.

In other words, poverty is almost three times as unhealthy as obesity for older people. The article goes on to quote John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, who has researched and written about loneliness. He has used the term “silver tsunami” to describe the demographic changes around the world as the baby boomers grow old. He goes on to talk about the need for people “to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality” as they grow old.

Two observations from this. Firstly, should it all be down to the individual to protect themselves from loneliness and poverty? Or do communities and societies have a role to play as well? Both loneliness and poverty are surely things that are often beyond an individual’s control. Secondly, “tsunami” suggests something unpredictable and devastating. But as already indicated increasing life expectancy has been known about for many years and in many respects is a cause for celebration. Silver myopia more like, on the part of policy makers. And we will be even more short-sighted if we don’t at least consider that they may be associations between the age of austerity, loneliness, poverty and falling life expectancy.