Middle aged men and women are likely to suffer more years of ill health than older people, according to a new study.
Despite expecting to live longer, people in their 40s and 50s are set to spend a greater amount of time living with illnesses and diseases than older generations now in their 60s and early 70s.
The UCL-led study, published in the journal Population Studies, compared generations born between 1945 and 1980 and found a greater prevalence of ill health among those born later, with these younger cohorts more likely to rate their health as poor and have clinically measured poor health at equivalent ages during their working lives.
The researchers concluded that, although life expectancy has increased in recent decades, many of the years gained are likely to be spent in poor health, with conditions such as diabetes and obesity affecting people earlier.
A man who was 25 in 1993 could expect to live for 49.9 more years, giving them an average life expectancy of 74.9 years, the study showed. In that time, they had an average of 2.9 years of bad self rated health.
A man who was 25 in 2003 has another 52.3 years left to live on average, but 4.8 of these will be in poor health.
For women, the 25-year-olds in 1993 have a life expectancy of another 54.9 years, making them likely to live until they are 79.9 years old. They are likely to report illness for 2.9 years of this.
Younger women, who were 25 in 2003, have a longer life expectancy – 56.3 more years, but face 4.1 years of self reported poor health.
Although equivalent data does not exist for people born in the 1940s and 50s, the researchers believe the pattern can be extrapolated back – meaning those who are now in their 60s and 70s enjoy more years of healthy life.
They pointed to findings that less than 4 per cent of women born in 1946 were predicted to report a diabetes diagnosis at age 56 compared with 8 per cent of women born in 1958 at the same age.
And more than 78 per cent of men aged 44 born in 1970 were predicted to be overweight compared with 71 per cent born in 1958.
Lead author, Dr Stephen Jivraj (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health), said: “Our study shows that, for those born between 1945 and 1980, the overall trend is towards an increasing proportion of years in poor health, with some health conditions beginning at an earlier age.
“This has worrying implications for healthcare services, which already face increased demand because of an ageing population.”
Researchers looked at data from 135,189 people aged between 25 and 64 who took part in the Health Survey of England (HSE), an annual household survey with a nationally representative sample, between the years of 1991 and 2014.
Participants were asked whether they had poor health, a long-term illness, and a range of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Nurses also took objective measurements of hypertension, body mass index (BMI) and glycated haemoglobin (clinical diabetes).
Researchers compared the results for different age groups and used the data to calculate changes in healthy life expectancy over the generations as well as years likely to be spent in poor health.
They calculated that half of the gains in life expectancy between 1993 and 2003 would likely be spent in poor health, falling to a fifth of the gains between 2003 and 2013. Later-born cohorts were more likely to have diabetes, to be overweight and to report having cardiovascular disease and poor health in general. Later-born men were more likely to report high blood pressure.
Senior author, Professor George Ploubidis (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies), said: “Earlier in the 20th century, a rise in life expectancy went hand in hand with an increase in healthy lifespan – younger generations were living longer, healthier lives.
“It appears that, for those generations born between 1945 and 1980, this trend has stalled. Those born later are expected to live longer on average, but with more years of ill health.”