Recent information published by the Office of National Statistics relating to life expectancy in the UK has provided food for thought. While Healthy Life Expectancy in England and Wales has increased by over two years from the period of 2005-2007 to 2008-2010, the same cannot be said for residents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which actually experienced a decrease in the proportion of their life that they can expect to be in good health for.

However, for those of us living in the UK, overall more than 80% of our lives will be spent in good health.

Healthy Life Expectancy in each of the four Kingdoms for men and women is summarised in the graphs below.

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English Males

Scottish Men

English Women

Scottish Women

Welsh Men

Irish Men

Welsh Women

Irish Women

Inequalities between areas – causes and actions

Ed Jessop, who is the Vice President of the Faculty of Public Health said that these findings were promising and showed that work put into improving public health certainly could make a difference, which people, particularly those living in England, seemed to have reaped the benefits of. However, he gave a word of caution, as inequalities in health between those experiencing the best and worst health are widening, which is particularly demonstrated by men living in Northern Ireland. He suggested that it is difficult to pinpoint one cause for these inequalities in health, as health is determined by so many factors – it is not as simple as what our diet is like, our risk of various diseases is related to how active we are, where we work and live, and what is available to us locally.

There is no doubt that these health inequalities need to be tackled at their root causes. Public health initiatives can be used to improve health, but it essential that they are targeted at where they are most needed to ensure that money is best spent. Poor health in Scotland and Northern Ireland is predicted to have a larger burden on the health service, so initiatives to prevent the development of diseases in these areas will be money well spent, allowing a saving in the longer term.

Differences between men and women

While figures show that men live a larger fraction of their life in good health than women, this can in part be explained by the fact that men’s life expectancy is shorter. Despite that the gap between the healthy life expectancy of men and women is narrowing, which is down to women’s health improving more quickly than men’s. Both may have access to the same medical services, but it is probably due to the fact that men are more likely to be obese, smoke and drink excessively, all of which are risk factors for poor health. Another factor that might come into play is that mutations in mitochondrial DNA – the genetic material that determine how nutrients are converted into a form that the cells of the body are able to use – have an impact on aging in men, but not women. Lastly, because the survey was self-reported, men and women are likely to view their health differently and what constitutes good health, which will no doubt have had a bearing on the results.

Consequences of longer life expectancy

The increase in life expectancy has a lot to thank medical science for. However, while living longer healthier lives can be seen as a very positive thing, it’s important that we help people prepare for their old age. It goes without saying that the longer we live, the more money we will need to see us through our later years. This makes working for longer to finance our retirement seem inevitable. However, our better health and mobility should make it easier for us to work for longer without compromising our wellbeing, with the added bonus of building up savings for a more comfortable life in years to come.