Committee blasts UK Government approach to aging

House of Lords report highlights that Government continues to fail to meet the challenges and realise the opportunities of aging.

Ill health in old age is a growing problem, and the Government’s Ageing Society Grand Challenge is not on track to achieve its mission of five extra years of healthy living by 2035, says a report published by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee today. Urgent action is needed, says the report, to increase healthy life expectancy and reduce health inequalities in old age, as emphasised by the COVID-19 pandemic [1].

Longevity.Technology: Today’s report finds that concerted action is required in order to increase the number of years spent in good health in old age. There are calls to better coordinate health services to achieve better treatment of people with multiple age-related illnesses, and to deploy technology and services more widely to support independent living in old age.

The Committee concludes that more effective public health advice and strategic government interventions can support life-long healthy living and that given the recent scientific discoveries that reveal underlying processes of aging, the UK could play a leading role in developing treatments to address the root causes of age-related illnesses.

Previously the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Longevity has established that it aims for parity in healthspan AND lifespan, so it is disappointing that the Government’s promise of “five extra years of healthy, independent life by 2035” now seems quixotic. To dream the impossible dream, perhaps.

The Chair of the Committee, Lord Patel, said: “The Committee found that the Government needs to urgently address the key issues of reducing health inequalities, implementing health system reforms and promoting lifestyle changes. Furthermore, technologies can be better utilised to help people live independently for longer.

“The Government must act now to increase support for the exciting new scientific research that targets the underlying processes of ageing. Treatments are being developed that could improve health without the need to treat multiple separate illnesses [2].”

Responding to the report, David Sinclair, Director of the International Longevity Centre – UK (ILC), said: “It feels like groundhog day with yet another Parliamentary report highlighting our failure to respond to ageing. It has been clear for decades that the UK is failing to meet the challenges of ageing whilst also missing out on the opportunities of an older population.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. As the Lords report highlights, the UK could lead the way. We are global leaders in health and technology. Government must drive and better support innovations if we are to deliver a longevity dividend.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the inequalities in ageing. Too many of us are ageing badly. The Government’s aim to deliver five extra healthy years of life by 2035 is laudable and exciting but completely unachievable without major policy change. We need a major focus on preventative health not just nice policy words.

“It’s time to wake up to ageing. Let’s hope when we wake up it isn’t to 6 more weeks of winter but instead to a concerted effort from Government to address the challenges raised by the committee.”

“The Government must act now to increase support for the exciting new scientific research that targets the underlying processes of ageing.”

The Committee’s Key Recommendations across science, technology and health services to improve health in old age are:

  • The Government, along with NHS England, Public Health England, and other agencies, must prioritise reducing health inequalities. In its response to this report they request that the Government sets out a plan for reducing health inequalities over the next Parliament.
  • All older patients should have a designated clinician. This clinician would have oversight of the patient’s care as a whole, and should coordinate activity across multidisciplinary teams, which should include members from across the health and social care sectors.
  • UK Research and Innovation should commit to funding further research into the biological processes underlying ageing as a priority, in particular to address gaps in understanding the relevance of ageing hallmarks to humans. Research to identify accurate biomarkers of ageing in humans should also be prioritised, to support studies to improve healthspan.
  • The Government should ensure the UK remains a global leader in drug research and development. It should work towards making the UK a more attractive environment for growth capital investment, to stop UK innovations moving abroad after the discovery stage of research.
  • The Government should implement a concerted and coordinated set of national policies to support healthy ageing, including: regulatory and fiscal measures, actively to encourage people to adopt lifestyles that support healthy ageing; increasing the reach of the NHS Health Check to those in disadvantaged groups who will benefit the most; and working with local authorities on the funding of local services, housing and infrastructure to encourage and facilitate healthier living across the life-course, including the necessary services to maintain health and independence in old age.
  • The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care – along with the senior responsible officer – should produce a cross-government strategy which clearly states how the Government plans to achieve the Ageing Society Grand Challenge mission by 2035. The strategy should include a roadmap for how the Government intends to achieve the mission, and should specify the departments responsible for working towards the target.

“Those who age healthily can have considerably reduced risk of adverse effects from most health hazards…”

After today’s publication, we reached out to Ken Raj, Senior Scientific Group Leader at Public Health England, who offered us his personal take on the report.

“It is encouraging that the committee acknowledges the considerable effect of ageing on society,” Dr Raj told us. “As a case in point, the clear impact of age as the biggest determinant of adverse outcome of Covid-19 infection is inescapable.

This, however, is not inevitable. Those who age healthily can have considerably reduced risk of adverse effects from most health hazards. It is important to realise that the science of ageing has greatly improved in the past few years and we are in a position not just to document ageing, but to do something about it. The unfortunate fatalistic perspective when it comes to ageing is due to the lack of realisation of just how far we have come, and how close we are to affecting change that will lead to healthy ageing.”

(It should be noted that Dr Raj’s views are his own, and should in no way be taken as representative of the views of Public Health England.)

Image credit:  Dan JohnstonPixabay