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Brits ‘dangerously optimistic’ about escaping long-term illness

A third of young people expect to use private healthcare in later life

The British public is dangerously underestimating the medical risks that arise from longer average lifespans, a think tank has warned.

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) said most people are over-optimistic about their chances of avoiding cancer, dementia and other serious conditions over the course of their lifetime.

It called for politicians and the NHS to lead a new national conversation to educate people about the likelihood of ill-health in later life, warning that many people will be ill-prepared for the costs and difficulties they could face when they are older.

More than half the public does not think the NHS is ready for demographic change and a third of younger people expect to have to use private healthcare later in life.

“Health, Care and the 100-year life”, the first of series of reports supported by AIG, reveals a child born today has a one in three chance of living to 100.

Polling by Opinium for the project shows only 22% of people expect to experience cancer in their lifetime, however Cancer Research UK estimates that half of all people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer at some point.

Around 17% expect to suffer heart disease, whereas the British Heart Foundation estimates heart and circulatory diseases cause 28% of all deaths in the UK.

Just 11% expect to suffer dementia, yet the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that 20% of people who live to 85 develop dementia.

Overall, 35% of people believe they will pass their entire lifetime without being affected by serious illness or long-term conditions.

Kathryn Petrie, SMF chief economist, said there is a danger that many people aren’t prepared for the health challenges they are likely to face in later life, emotionally or financially.

“It’s great news that many of us will live for so long, but we should also be ready for the new challenges that might bring,” she added.

The survey also found that Brits are pessimistic about the NHS’s ability to respond to the challenges of a population living much longer lives, even though health spending is set to rise significantly.

Health spending is currently around 7% of GDP but official figures suggest that by 2067/68, it will account for 13.8% of the economy, partly because of the ageing population.

More than half (57%) of respondents to the survey agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “the NHS is not set up to deal with the challenges of an ageing population”. Respondents aged 55+ were the most likely to agree with the statement (60%) but even among 18-34 year-olds the majority (52%) believe the NHS isn’t ready for the era of the 100-year life.

Around one in five people expect to make some use of private healthcare to manage any long-term conditions they develop later in life, while 19% said they would use a combination of NHS and private care and 4% said they expected to use only private services.

A third (33%) of people under 35 said they expect to use private healthcare or a combination of NHS and the private sector.

Philip Willcock, AIG Life’s chief executive officer, said: “It’s a real worry that so many people in the UK are in denial about the illnesses they could face in their lifetime, when we should be celebrating the advances society has made towards a longer life. But if policymakers begin the education process now, we can help people to plan for the prospect of enjoying a 100-year life.”