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People are living longer but in poorer health, research reveals

Published: 13/10/2021

Report shows people in the UK are spending an average of 12 years in ill-health.

We are all aware of our lifespan, but not as many of us are aware that we have a ‘healthspan’. Our lives are getting longer, but the number of years we can expect to live in good health is not increasing at the same rate. And this is impacting our quality of life, a new report from the Vitality Research Institute has revealed.

As a result, people are living a greater proportion of their lives in ill-health than they were 30 years ago. In the UK, people are living on average 12 years in poor health – 14% longer than in 1990.

Not only is this bad for individuals, but also for businesses and broader society. Around 40% of UK productivity loss – equivalent to £39bn a year – is due to employees’ unhealthy lifestyle behaviours and poor mental wellbeing1.


According to the report, people are spending longer in ill-health as a result of chronic diseases driven by unhealthy choices and lifestyle factors, such as diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions and mental health, while certain risk factors like high BMI are increasing for younger ages.

Current healthcare strategies prioritise the treatment of illness when it occurs, with just 5% of healthcare spend in the UK going towards prevention. This is despite nearly 40% of the UK’s total disease burden (premature death and disability) being attributable to poor lifestyle choices and heighted metabolic risk.

As well as pointing to the importance of prevention, the report highlights how physical activity and more nutritious diets can improve the number of years we spend in better health. According to its findings, a focus on ‘healthspan’ over lifespan can deliver benefits across three main areas:

For individuals
Moderate changes to physical activity and diet, resulting in minor improvements in metabolic risk, can have a material impact on a person’s lifespan and healthspan. For example, a 30-year-old man of average health could gain 2.8 years of healthy life through moderate changes to exercise and diet. A 30-year-old female who makes a moderate increase in exercise and diet could add three years of good health.

For businesses
The UK is estimated to lose approximately £92bn a year to ill-health related absenteeism and presenteeism1. Around 40% of this productivity loss - equivalent to £39bn per annum - is due to employee lifestyle behaviours and poor mental wellbeing.

For society
The report estimates that the total cost associated with four selected diseases largely impacted by diet and exercise – heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers – is approximately £15bn annually in the UK. Around £12bn of this is attributable to lifestyle and metabolic risks. If only 10% of the preventable disease burden is avoided, £1.2bn worth of treatment costs could be saved annually in the UK.

To hear about the Vitality Research Institute and the report findings, we asked Dr Katie Tryon, Chief Engagement Officer at Vitality, to tell us more. Watch the video below.
Find out more about how Vitality’s Serious Illness Cover can offer more relevant, comprehensive cover for your clients:

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1. Britain’s Healthiest Workplace 2019, Vitality and RAND Europe