Big rise projected in number of employees with chronic illnesses

9 February 2018

New research indicates a stark increase in people with chronic illnesses over the next 20 years.

By 2035, an estimated more than two million people in England aged 65 and over could be living with four or more chronic illnesses¹.

A study of more than 300,000 people aged 35 and over, looked into the risks that younger people (aged 65 and under) face of 'multi-morbidity' (two or more concurrent long-term conditions) in the future.

The results point to further proof that an increasingly sedentary lifestyle could be taking a heavy toll on the health of the nation and its workforce.

Life expectancy

The trend of life expectancy in the UK has been rising.  The average life expectancy between 1980 and 1982 was 70.8 years for males and 76.8 years for females.  By 2014 to 2016, those figures were up to 79.2 years for males and 82.9 years for females².

But with that rise comes various problems.  Principally, the number of illnesses and conditions that people may be susceptible to.

Between 2015 and 2035, the proportion of people over the age of 65 with four or more diseases or impairments is projected to almost double - from 9.8% to 17%³.

It means that it's possible most of the extra life expectancy people are expected to have by 2035 (2.4 of the 3.6 years for men and 2.5 of the 2.9 years for women4) could be spent living with the spectre of disease.

A sedentary routine

The effects of a sedentary life - too much sitting down, not enough exercise - have long been linked to type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and obesity.

But this study sheds light on the increasing problem of dealing with multiple conditions at the same time.

"Poor health behaviours such as obesity and physical inactivity are risk factors common to a number of diseases, but have received little attention as risk factors for multi-morbidity," the report states.

And although life expectancy is increasing, the age at which people become vulnerable to such conditions is suggested to be dropping.  The report adds:  "Younger cohorts have a higher prevalence of obesity than their equivalents a generation ago, which may contribute to the increased prevalence of multi-morbidity in those under 65 years of age."

What can be done?

Clearly, as the research explains, health awareness is a national, large-scale problem.

But every large-scale issue can be tackled by co-ordinated action on an individual level.  For employers, there are two potential paths of action:

1.  Encourage activity

2.  Provide care support

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, recently spoke out about ways in which the UK's SMEs can encourage a healthier workforce - such as walking meetings, ergonomic assessments and lunchtime exercise clubs5

As for care, the research seems to show that in the near future, employees may need more financial and practical support than ever to help them continue working while coping with chronic illness.  Particularly when the increased life expectancy nationwide could lead to a higher retirement age and more older workers making up the workforce.

There are plenty of options available for employers looking to increase the level of support offered to employees.  Sick Pay Insurance pays out for short-term absences while Group Income Protection not only provides for longer-term absence, but also rehabilitation support to help employees back to work more quickly.

The increase in life expectancy has slowed in the last couple of years, but there's no reason to think it will reverse.

As such, employers must prepare themselves for the consequences of an ageing workforce and the complications that come with it.

Sources:

Unum

1, 3, 4 Age and Ageing. (2018). Projections of multi-morbidity in the older population in England to 2035

2 ONS. (2017). National Life Tables, UK: 2014 to 2016

5 The Observer. (2017).  Yoga in the office? Firms should help us stay well, says public health chief


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