We'll live longer but suffer more ill-health by 2035, says study

Number of old people suffering from four medical conditions to double in less than 20 years, researchers claim

The number of older people who have at least four different medical conditions is set to double by 2035, in a trend that will put huge extra strain on the NHS, researchers warn.

Diseases such as cancer, diabetes, dementia and depression will become far more common as more and more over-65s develop them in their later years, a study at Newcastle University published on Tuesday found.

One in three of those diagnosed with four long-term conditions will have dementia, depression or some form of cognitive impairment, according to academics in the university’s Institute for Ageing.

They predict that over the next 20 years there will be “a massive expansion in the number of people suffering from multiple diseases, known as multi-morbidity”.

Those years will see a 179.4% increase in the number of people of pension age being diagnosed with cancer, a 118% rise in those who have diabetes and a big jump, too, in cases of arthritis.

“In the population over the age of 85 years all diseases, apart from dementia and depression, will more than double in absolute numbers between 2015 and 2035”, say the researchers.

The trend will mean that men and women will suffer from four or more diseases for two-thirds of the extra life expectancy that people can look forward to gaining by 2035 – another 3.6 years for men and 2.9 years for women – the authors estimate.

“These findings have enormous implications for how we should consider the structure and resources for the NHS in the future,” said Carol Jagger, professor of epidemiology of ageing at the institute, who led the study.

“Multi-morbidity increases the likelihood of hospital admission and a longer stay, along with a higher rate of readmission, and these factors will continue to contribute to crisis in the NHS”.

A large part of the increase in the number of people with four or more medical problems will come from an expected sharp rise in coming years in the number of people living until at least 85, which Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has warned will increase the NHS’s workload.

Jagger and her team also identified another age group whose health outlook is also very gloomy.

“More worryingly, our model shows that future young-old adults, aged 65 to 74 years, are more likely to have two or three diseases than in the past. This is due to their higher prevalence of obesity and physical inactivity, which are risk factors for multiple diseases,” added Jagger.

The research, part of the MODEM project, has been jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the NHS’s research arm, the National Institute for Health Research.

Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, said: “This research absolutely underlines the importance of getting our health and care services right for older people. The increase in longevity over recent years has been a major achievement, but it also means we need to shift our focus to helping people to stay as well and independent as possible for as long as possible.

“As we get older, our health and care needs tend to overlap and become more complex. A more compassionate and intelligent approach to caring for older people must be a priority for us all.”

A spokesperson for NHS England said: “This study is further evidence of the need to integrate care, in the way the NHS is now beginning to do, so as to better support the growing number of older people with multiple health problems.”


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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