Suffolk's next biggest killer? Fears drastically ageing population will spark sharp rise in deaths by loneliness
PUBLISHED: 06:32 06 May 2019 | UPDATED: 09:25 06 May 2019
The scale of the "tsunami" of health problems to hit Suffolk due to its dramatically ageing population has today been laid bare - with warnings more people will be killed by loneliness than cancer or smoking.
Suffolk already has one of the highest concentrations of older people in the country, with many retiring to the county just as younger people fly the nest for jobs in major cities elsewhere.
But its elderly population is rising faster than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, with the number of over-65s due to grow by 47% by 2037 – from 748,000 today to more than 1m in less than 20 years.
That will mean one in three people in Suffolk will be over 65, with Age UK Suffolk warning that the county could face a perfect storm of health challenges as a result.
The biggest, the charity says, is loneliness – one in three over-65s and half of over-75s live alone, with many living in isolated, rural areas cut off from crucial services and contact with others.
The Department for Health and Social Care has said work needs to be done to ensure improved life expectancy is matched with good quality of life.
It also says it is investing £98million nationally to help support people's independence and wellbeing in their later years.
But Age UK Suffolk chief executive Andrew Gardner believes the consequences of loneliness on someone's overall health are little understood – and said: “Let's deal with it now, 20 years before that tsunami of health issues is going to hit.
“We can either stick our heads in the sand or deal with it today.
“The population of Suffolk is ageing faster than the rest of the UK – not only in terms of older people but the reduction in numbers of younger people.
“40% of the population in Suffolk live rurally, compared to the rest of the country where that figure is 25%.
“That means the number of older people living in rural locations will increase and therefore the number of people who are socially isolated and lonely is going to increase.
“It's inevitable this is going to happen.
“What we tend to find in those rural localities is that as people get older, they become much more marginalised.
“The single biggest cause of social isolation and loneliness is living alone.
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“And it is common knowledge that the effects of social isolation and loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day – because people don't go out, they develop things like COPD and heart disease and it can speed up those health issues that as you get older are exacerbated.
“If those are the recognised health consequences and we know the proportion of older people is increasing, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out the impact on GPs and the NHS.
“The consequences of it are such that it will have a massive impact on services in the future, unless we act now and put services in place.
“This will kill more people than cancer or smoking.”
Mr Gardner, previously chief executive of Age UK Essex for five years, believes the health service needs to start working with people aged in their 50s and 60s today to ensure the correct provisions are in place ahead of time.
But he also encouraged members of the public to begin thinking early how they might cope in later life should the death of friends and relatives leave them or someone they know on their own.
“I would say that it's going to happen to you or someone you know,” said Mr Gardner, who has led Age UK Suffolk since June 2017.
“One thing you can't prevent is old age. The one thing you can do is prepare for it and manage it when it comes.”
Thankfully, Mr Gardner believes the solution is “really, really simple” – because: “Most people we deal with just want a cup of tea and a chat – that's enough. People just want to see someone.”
Much of the charity's work is therefore about building up its befriending services for the future and trying to match people with volunteers who have a similar interest.
But even providing that relatively straightforward solution is difficult – it costs £200,000 a year to run a full telephone and visiting befriending service, yet 2019/20 is the first year Age UK Suffolk has to cope without a single penny of public sector funding.
“Suffolk is a microcosm of a much wider problem and it is escalating here much quicker than anywhere else,” Mr Gardner said.
“It is a much bigger problem than people realise.
“We've had to invest in income generation that is going to help bail the public sector out of the problems they're going to face in the next 20 to 30 years but are not willing to fund.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We want older people to have healthier, more connected lives and are investing hundreds of millions of pounds to develop new products, services and treatments through our Ageing Society Grand Challenge, ensuring everyone can enjoy an additional five extra years of healthy, independent life by 2035.
“As part of the NHS Long Term Plan we are also investing in social prescribing schemes to see healthcare professionals playing a vital role in signposting people experiencing loneliness to local services and connecting them back to their communities.”