Since February 2020, the global healthcare conversation has been dominated by one topic: Covid-19. Now, with restrictions having eased, we are starting to get a true understanding of the pandemic’s impact on our healthcare systems and its influence on how we approach our own health.
One thing that is clear is the effect of the relentless strain placed on the NHS. GPs and pharmacists in primary care who fought on the coronavirus frontline are now dealing with issues of burnout and stress. Backlogs and treatment waiting times in hospitals, already a problem prior to the arrival of Covid-19, have only been made worse.
Beneath all of this continued disruption, longer-term health trends continue to play out – some of which have been accelerated by the experiences of the past few years. This is creating a changing picture of our national health and risk factors, with younger populations not necessarily facing the same challenges and priorities as those from earlier generations.
A changing picture of health
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that life expectancy for people born in the UK in 2020 stands at 87.3 years for boys and 90.2 years for girls. Forecasts predict these figures will increase to 90.1 years and 92.6 years respectively for those born in 2045, based on continued improvements in mortality rates.
Age has important implications for our health. Indeed, our ageing population is a major factor behind the continued rise in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which is the leading cause of death in England in females and the third largest in males. The Alzheimer’s Society projects that the number of older people with dementia in the UK will increase by 80% to affect around 1.6 million people in 2040, leading the total cost of dementia care to increase from £34.7 billion in 2019 to £94.1 billion in 2040.
Obesity is another health risk on the rise. Analysis of data from the National Heights and Weights Survey in 1980 calculated that the prevalence of obesity in England was 6% of men and 9% of women at that time. In 2019, these figures have risen to 27% of men and 29% of women.
As well as affecting quality of life, obesity can also be a trigger for other health issues, including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
Areas of improvement
In the case of cancers more generally, however, the outlook is an improved one. While the disease remains responsible for around one in four deaths in the UK, cancer survival rates have more than doubled from 24% to 50% over the last 40 years and mortality rates for all cancers combined are projected to fall by 15% between 2014 and 2035.
It is a similar picture for heart and circulatory diseases. In 1961, more than half of all deaths in the UK (320,000) were attributed to heart and circulatory diseases, but this rate has declined significantly in the intervening period – and by as much as three quarters in England. Today, an estimated 7.6 million people are living with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK, managing their condition on a day-to-day basis.
Taking greater self-care
Many of these improvements can be attributed to a greater awareness of healthcare risks and an increased appetite for self-care among younger generations. For example, smoking, which is known to be a significant contributing factor for a number of diseases, has been consistently in decline since 2011.
And as well as a greater focus on our physical health, there has also been a notable shift in attention towards our mental health. A more open public conversation around this subject has been a factor in a rising number of psychological disorder diagnoses as well as greater emphasis on promoting wellbeing, reducing stress levels and building mindfulness into everyday aspects of our lives to protect our mental health.
Protecting our health in a post-pandemic world
A plethora of mobile apps and digital healthcare services are now available to support these self-care efforts, whether from a mental or physical perspective. Actively monitoring ourselves in this way generates data that can improve our own decision making and also has the potential to inform treatments in the future.
The pandemic has only accelerated this move towards a digitally enhanced, personalised approach to healthcare. Research shared by GSK Consumer Healthcare and IPSOS found that two-thirds of people are now more likely to consider their health in day-to-day decision-making and Google suggests that such a shift has the potential for long-term and far-reaching impacts on the products and brands we buy.
Furthermore, the GSK/IPSOS research also indicates that the clear majority of people (77%) consider it important to take their health into their own hands to relieve pressure on healthcare systems. So, while the pandemic has impacted generations in very different ways, it has underlined to us all the importance of actively managing our own health.
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