Throughout the 75-year history of the NHS, one of its most remarkable achievements has been the innovation in healthcare which has helped to tackle major causes of death and disease, contributing towards longer lives. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, people in the UK lived 13 years longer on average in 2016 than in 1948, when the NHS was established. By 2040, one in seven of us will be over 75. This is undoubtedly an incredible collective success.
However, while improvements in life expectancy should be celebrated, there are huge disparities in health and life expectancy across the UK, and these gaps are widening. Furthermore, because healthy life expectancy has not increased as much as life expectancy, too many people are spending the latter part of their lives in poor health. For example, women living in the most deprived areas have a healthy life expectancy at birth that is a full 19.7 years less than women living in the least deprived areas.
To reduce these inequalities, a whole-society approach to healthy ageing is required, promoting health, well-being and disease prevention.
Much is already being done globally and in the UK to tackle ageism and promote healthy ageing. The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing Plan of Action (2021-2030) sets out a blueprint for why and how governments, health systems, academia, the third sector and society can take action to improve the lives of older people, their families and their communities. In the UK, healthy ageing is a fundamental part of the NHS Long Term Plan. Also, in February this year, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, together with partner organisations, published a consensus on healthy ageing.
The collective focus and the potential of Integrated Care Systems to deliver joined-up sustainable healthcare mean that now is the time to drive progress on the government’s ambition for everyone to have five extra years of healthy, independent life by 2035. If we are to achieve this without widening the healthy life expectancy gap, extra attention must be given supporting those with the worst outcomes to address healthcare inequalities.
Improving healthy life expectancy and meeting the needs of an ageing population will require ideas and action from a range of relevant stakeholders on access to healthcare, high-quality social care, and addressing the wider determinants of health. At MSD, we believe there is a clear and substantial role for the life sciences sector to play in supporting the healthy ageing agenda, and that partnership, meaningful engagement and tangible action are fundamental to bringing about change in health attitudes and outcomes.
As a company, our mission starts with strides to improve diversity within our clinical trials programmes, so that our research includes and represents the populations that we serve. To give one example, MSD is building upon insights from a UK hackathon, where we invited 30 life sciences students from 20 UK universities to spend two days together in a workshop to learn about diversity and inclusion in clinical trials, and present solutions to the barriers to improving it. Notable suggestions from the students included building relationships with community leaders to raise awareness of clinical trials, and using digital platforms to alert patients of opportunities to participate in research. We have taken the recommendations on-board and are committed to working both with the NHS and with communities on widening participation.
Additionally, we see the need to prioritise the prevention of ill health to reduce the gap in healthy life expectancy and meet the needs of an ageing population. Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective public health interventions. With the exception of safe water, nothing has had a greater effect on mortality reduction and population health than immunisation. MSD is the largest supplier of vaccines to the UK’s national programmes and we are committed to partnering with local and national health systems to address inequalities in vaccine coverage and to strengthen the UK’s response across vaccine-preventable diseases.
Patients must be supported and empowered across their lifespan. To give a powerful example, there is no blueprint for growing older with HIV. This generation is the first to do so, and so we need to continue to focus on what the quality and delivery of care is going to look like. The Fifty Over 50 project, coordinated by MSD in collaboration with the Whole Person Care group of HIV community and professional organisations, is a unique listening project with a mission to hear from those ageing with HIV about the experiences that have shaped them, and their hopes and fears for the future. Fifty Over 50 brings together first-hand accounts from a diverse range of people aged 50+ living with HIV and highlights how for many in the HIV community being well is about more than just viral suppression, it’s also about living well. Empowering individuals to voice their needs and co-create solutions must be at the heart of healthy ageing policy. The life sciences sector, with partner organisations, should help to enable this.
Finally, while innovation and new approaches to managing and treating major conditions have helped to improve health outcomes, there are still areas of unmet need which require research, innovation, and creativity to address diseases of ageing. MSD has made a significant investment of £1bn into a world-leading discovery centre and headquarters in London, which will host talented researchers to drive medical advances against neurological conditions affecting our ageing population. Innovating across the lifespan will be our mission in the years to come.
Innovation has helped to improve longevity, but with progress come new challenges. To improve the lives of older people and reduce the gap in healthy life expectancy, we must listen to individuals, empower them to make informed decisions, prioritise prevention, and continue with the same spirit of innovation that has driven progress to solve new challenges for better, more equitable health.
Job code: GB-NON-07641
Date of preparation: June 2023
MSD has provided funding support for this activity
This advertorial first appeared in a Spotlight special print edition on the NHS’s 75th anniversary. Read it here.