People in their 40s and 50s face more years of ill health than baby boomers, a study suggests.
The research, led by UCL and published in the journal Population Studies, found that while the middle-aged may expect to live longer, they are likely to suffer more years of ill health than older generations now in their 60s and early 70s, known as ‘baby boomers’.
Researchers compared generations born between 1945 and 1980 and found a greater prevalence of ill health among those born later.
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These younger cohorts were more likely to rate their health as poor and have clinically measured poor health at equivalent ages during their working lives, they said.
The researchers said that although life expectancy has increased in recent decades, many of the years gained are likely to be spent in poor health, with conditions such as diabetes and obesity affecting people earlier.
Lead author Dr Stephen Jivraj, of UCL’s department of epidemiology and public health, said: “Our study shows that, for those born between 1945 and 1980, the overall trend is towards an increasing proportion of years in poor health, with some health conditions beginning at an earlier age.
“This has worrying implications for healthcare services, which already face increased demand because of an ageing population.”
The researchers analysed data from 135,189 people aged between 25 and 64 who took part in the annual Health Survey of England between 1991 and 2014.
Participants were asked whether they had poor health, a long-term illness and a range of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, while nurses measured hypertension, body mass index and blood glucose levels.
Researchers compared the results for different age groups and used the data to calculate changes in healthy life expectancy over the generations as well as years likely to be spent in poor health.
They calculated that half of the gains in life expectancy between 1993 and 2003 were likely to be spent in poor health, falling to a fifth of the gains between 2003 and 2013, UCL said.
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Later-born cohorts were more likely to have diabetes, to be overweight and to report having cardiovascular disease and poor health in general while later-born men were more likely to report high blood pressure, it added.
Senior author Professor George Ploubidis, at UCL’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, said: “Earlier in the 20th Century, a rise in life expectancy went hand in hand with an increase in healthy lifespan – younger generations were living longer, healthier lives.
“It appears that, for those generations born between 1945 and 1980, this trend has stalled.
“Those born later are expected to live longer on average, but with more years of ill health.”
Reader Q&A: Is there any hope of curing diabetes?
Asked by: Billy Wilson, Deal, Kent
Diabetes is actually several medical conditions with one thing in common: they all lead to unhealthy levels of glucose in the blood. While the human body needs quick access to sugar for energy, excessive levels increase the risk of premature death from heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.
Normally, blood sugar levels are controlled by the pancreas through the release of insulin, a hormone that helps cells absorb blood sugar. But this can go wrong in several ways, reflected in the different forms of diabetes.
In the UK, around 10 per cent of cases are so-called ‘type 1’ diabetes, caused by loss of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. For unknown reasons, these cells are attacked by the body’s immune system, so patients need regular doses of insulin, usually by injection. But the most common type, at around 90 per cent, is ‘type 2’ diabetes, where cells no longer fully respond to insulin. This ‘insulin resistance’ leaves excess sugar in the blood, triggering demand for yet more insulin, leading to damage to the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes is often linked to diets rich in carbs and sugar, and sedentary lifestyles.
While there’s no cure for either type, patients with severe type 1 can be offered a pancreas transplant, which typically works for around five years. There are also cases of patients becoming disease-free for a while, with their pancreas mysteriously regaining its ability to produce insulin. Whether this can be triggered by drugs is currently a focus of research.
Intriguingly, a 2018 study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, US, found that verapamil, a drug used to control blood pressure, can help type 1 diabetics maintain insulin production, but the research is still at an early stage. For those with type 2 diabetes, changing to a healthier diet, losing weight and taking more exercise can often prove effective in controlling symptoms.