Media Release

Public “dangerously optimistic” about escaping long-term illness

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

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

Politicians and the NHS should lead a new national conversation to educate people about the likelihood of ill-health in later life, the SMF said. Otherwise many people will be ill-prepared for the costs and difficulties they might face when they are older.

The cross-party think-tank also said the NHS should step up efforts to help people manage their own health and long-term conditions, amid widespread public doubts that the service will be able to cope with the challenges of an older population. 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.

The SMF today publishes “Health, Care and the 100-year life”, the first of series of reports supported by AIG that address the public policy challenges raised by rising longevity.

A child born today has a one in three chance of living to 100 and while the SMF report says increased longevity should be celebrated, it also notes that longer lives will raise new questions about health and social care.

Polling by Opinium for the 100-year-life project shows that many people are significantly understating their chances of developing serious or long-term medical conditions.

  • Only 22% expect to experience cancer in their lifetime. Cancer Research UK estimates that half of all people born after 1960 will in fact be diagnosed with cancer at some point.
  • Some 17 % expect to suffer heart disease. The British Heart Foundation estimates that heart and circulatory diseases cause 28% of all deaths in the UK.
  • Just 11% expect to suffer dementia.   The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that 20% of people who live to 85 develop dementia.
  • Some 35% of people believe they will pass their entire lifetime without being affected by serious illness or long-term conditions.

Those findings suggest that many people will not be prepared for the emotional or economic impact if they do experience ill health in later life.  The SMF said that policymakers should help to start a national conversation about the health implications of longer lives, to help prepare the population.

That campaign of “public education” should draw lessons from recent pensions policy, where successive governments have encouraged people to make more provision for their own income in later life, the SMF said.  The NHS should also identify many more “teachable moments” where people interacting with the service can be offered help and advice on how to manage their long-term health.

Kathryn Petrie, SMF Chief Economist, said:

“It’s understandable that people prefer not to think about future illness, but there’s a danger that many people just aren’t prepared for the health challenges they are likely to face in later life, emotionally or financially.

“Leaders who want to prepare Britain for the future should be having an honest conversation with the public about the reality of 100-year-lives.  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.”

The survey also found that Britain is 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 aging population”. Respondents aged 55+ were the most likely to agree with the statement (60% agreement) 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.  19% said they would use a combination of NHS and private care.  Some 4% said they expected to use only private services.

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

Kathryn Petrie, SMF Chief Economist, said:

“Despite recent commitments on NHS funding, many people don’t believe the NHS will be there for all their health needs. As our lifespans increase, politicians may have to decide whether to devote even more public money to health services, or explore new models where people take greater responsibility for their own care.”

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 policy makers begin the education process now, we can help people to plan for the prospect of enjoying a 100-year life. This first report presented by the Social Market Foundation provides a great starting point from which to have that discussion.


Notes to Editors
In a poll for AIG Life’s 100 Year Life project, Opinium conducted a nationally representative poll of 3,000 adults between 22nd and 27th March 2019.

The SMF report was kindly supported by AIG Life, the UK life insurance arm of AIG.  The SMF, a registered charity, retains editorial independence over all its publications and discloses all its sources of funding.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact the SMF:

Barbara Lambert, SMF media officer: and 020 7222 7060

James Kirkup, SMF director:

About the SMF:

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) is a non-partisan think tank. We believe that fair markets, complemented by open public services, increase prosperity and help people to live well. We conduct research and run events looking at a wide range of economic and social policy areas, focusing on economic prosperity, public services and consumer markets. The SMF is resolutely independent, and the range of backgrounds and opinions among our staff, trustees and advisory board reflects this.


Related items:

Page 1 of 1