Back in January, we shared news of the latest population projections from the Office for National Statistics, and the implications for our own legacy forecasts. The recent ONS calculations suggest that the number of UK deaths will rise more rapidly than previously expected. The main reason for the adjusted forecasts is a slowdown in projected life expectancies for the so-called ‘golden cohort’, i.e. people born between 1923 and 1938, who are now aged between 80 and 95.
ONS states that the (higher) rates of improvement assumed back in 2014 were overly positive for the golden cohort and “are likely to be too optimistic based on current evidence”. When we look at recent deaths statistics it is understandable that the projections have been lowered; mortality rates amongst older people increased sharply after the 2014 projections were made, particularly in 2015, when there was an exceptionally cold winter. This increase was most marked amongst the golden cohort, with the sharpest rise for women aged 85 or over.
This new data raised some important questions…Why is the golden cohort dying sooner than previously expected? And what does this mean for baby boomer life expectancies?
Some respected commentators suggest that our struggling health and social care system is a significant factor behind the slowdown in life expectancy for the 80 – 95 age group. Government spending has been squeezed at a time when demand for services is growing due to the ageing population. In July 2017 Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity said “if the government doesn’t spend appropriately on social care … appropriately on health care … the quality of life will get worse for older people and maybe the length of life too”.
Other key reasons could be the continued high death rates from heart disease as well as the rapid rise in Alzheimer’s and dementia, which are now the leading cause of death for women over 80 and men over 85. Deaths directly from dementia will continue to rise as the population ages, putting further strain on the NHS and social care services.
So, what does the change in projections mean for baby boomer life expectancies? The ONS is also projecting a slowdown for this group, albeit to a lesser degree. The biggest slowdown can be seen for the older baby boomers, who are now in their late sixties or early seventies.
For some boomers, the change appears to be lifestyle-driven. A report by the Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, cites that those now in their 50’s are seen to be less active than those in the same age group 10 years ago. This generation has been lucky with improved cancer care and better health screening but it is polarised between those with an active and healthy lifestyle and those who are less active than the previous generation. Sally Davies further adds “this generation also matured as the obesogenic environment developed and one in three Baby Boomers is currently obese”. The top 3 risk factors for baby boomers according to the report are smoking, poor diet and a high BMI.
Ironically, it appears that while the golden cohort may now be victims of austerity, their boomer successors may be victims of affluence!
We must remember that predicting life expectancy is a complicated business, based on many assumptions. There may well be further changes to the projections in future years and we will, of course, be keeping an eye on how life expectancies progress.
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 Deaths per 1,000 of the population, by age group
 Marmot Indicators 2017, UCL Institute of Health Equity
 Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2015: Baby Boomers: Fit for the Future