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What does an ageing population mean for the future of healthcare?

At New Statesman panel, organised in partnership with Biogen, looked at the impact of demographics on maintaining health and social care systems.

By Spotlight

In the decade between 2011-2021, the number of people aged over 65 in the UK increased from 9.2m to 11m. Britain’s health and care systems are buckling under the weight of an increasing number of elderly people in need of long-term care and support, with NHS waiting lists now at a record high of over 7m. Added to this social care services now make up around 80 per cent of most upper-tier local authorities’ spending. Finding ways of improving the wraparound support and preventative care our NHS and social care systems provide is essential.

At a recent panel discussion, hosted by the New Statesman during the Future of Healthcare Conference, sponsored by Biogen, a group of policymakers and experts discussed what the UK’s ageing population means for the future of health and care. They discussed the importance of preventative healthcare measures in bringing down the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over the next decade, what a national care service might look like, better integration between health and care, and creating the conditions needed for elderly people to thrive in their communities.

The panel agreed that there needs to be a shift in the narrative around ageing from helping people to live longer, to helping people to live in good health for longer. Dr Kylie Bromley, Managing Director at Biogen, a leading biotechnology company, said recent evidence would suggest “the time people are spending as healthy as a proportion of their life expectancy is stagnating”. Bromley said the sector’s objective should be to increase the amount of time that people spend “living healthy lives as a proportion of their life expectancy”.

Kaya Comer-Schwartz, the leader of Islington Council in north London, agreed that the focus of health and care for the UK’s aging population should be shifted more towards quality of life. She pointed out that while Islington is a relatively young borough – only 11 per cent of its residents are over 65 – this figure is projected to rise to 35 per cent over the next few years. “We’re in a crucial time of thinking about this,” she explained. The council has begun to think about how it can make Islington a better place for elderly people to live, by embedding preventative measures within the fabric of the community.

One of the ways the council is doing this is through its ‘People Friendly Pavement Scheme’. Under the scheme, the council is surveying each of its pavements to ensure that they are accessible to all the borough’s residents. “It’s not just about people living into old age, it’s about people thriving into old age,” Comer-Schwartz said.

Throughout the discussion, there was consensus among the panel that methods to prevent ill-health in later life need to be prioritised by the current, or future governments. Kate Lee, the Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Society said that currently there are 900,000 people who have been diagnosed with dementia across the UK, but by 2040 that figure is set to rise to 1.6m people at an estimated cost of £12.6bn.

Lee told the panel that 40 per cent of these dementia cases would be preventable with “different life choices earlier in life” and described the oncoming rise in the number of people with the disease as a “ticking time bomb”. Dementia can be prevented through better diet, frequent exercise, drinking less alcohol and not smoking.

“Doing nothing right now is not an option,” said Lee. She added that currently, only eight of the UK’s 42 Integrated Care Systems (ICS) have targeted dementia plans. An ICS is a partnership of organisations in an area focused on delivering health and care services. Lee said ICSs should have a dedicated lead accountable for dementia who is responsible for planning and delivering care in an integrated way in their local area.

Integration was a key sticking point for discussion throughout the panel. Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of the Fabian Society called on the government, or a future Labour government to build a National Care Service. Earlier this year, the Fabian Society launched their plan for a National Care Service at an event attended by Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting.

Harrop said creating a properly integrated social care service would be a “reset” for the social care system. “It’s creating a new brand and a new offer,” he said. This would mean that any effort to reform social care at the UK would happen collectively, all at once, rather than “having 100 little reforms”. Harrop added that he is confident that if there is a change of government next year “it will be high up the list of things incoming ministers want to achieve.”  Comer-Schwartz concluded the panel by reiterating her call to create well-rounded and holistic spaces. “We need to stop thinking about ageing just as waiting lists and hospitals,” she said, “we need to start really thinking about how we create healthy ecosystems locally”. She added: “that would go a long way to keeping a lot of people happy and thriving in their communities”.

Biogen has provided funding support for this activity.

Job code: Biogen – 229121

Date of preparation: December 2023

[See also: The Research Brief: Why we need billions for social care]

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