Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Healthier Lives – For How Long?

Yet another report has appeared on the healthcare costs of physical inactivity. This one, from the International Sports and Culture Association (ISCA), identifies costs for several different European countries including the UK*. Inactivity increases the chances of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other conditions that cost money to treat – quite apart from the patient suffering they cause.

Don’t get me wrong, I support physical exercise (and do it myself). But I do object to reports like this that, in order to prove a point, fail to present the full picture.


Firstly, increased physical activity is great provided it is safe. Cycling is the obvious case in point, with benefits to the environment (less traffic) as well as health. But – as I’ve observed in previous blogs – this only works if it can be done safely. Currently in the UK, the trend of increased cycling is being match by a trend of more cyclists killed on our roads, and this is not acceptable.


Secondly, the report falls into the common trap of referring to “deaths averted”. Congratulations – they’ve discovered the secret of immortality!! Actually no they haven’t, they should be referring to the avoidance of premature death. Despite advances in medical science, we’re all going to die sometime.


And of course, if fewer people die young, then more people will live into old age. Which means an increase in diseases of old age such as arthritis and dementia, and an increase in the healthcare costs of treating these conditions. It could be argued that we’re not saving healthcare costs so much as postponing them to a later time and different cause. Other economic factors such as social care costs and pensions also come into play as we live longer.

There may come a time when humankind will question its pursuit of ever-longer life. But that time certainly isn’t with us yet, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should stop trying to get fitter and healthier, or live longer. I am suggesting though that we should think more about the ‘big picture’ and plan accordingly.


For example – back to cycling – I fully support Leeds City Council’s ‘cycle superhighway’, currently under construction from East Leeds through the city centre to Bradford. It may not be a perfect plan but it’s a big step in the right direction. It aims to be part of a whole solution, enabling all the advantages of cycling whilst hugely reducing the risks.


The parallel for longevity would be a comprehensive health and social care strategy that supports longer, healthier lives and addresses the consequences that these bring. Currently, I see lots of activity around pensions, elderly care and the management of long-term conditions. But an overall strategy? I’m afraid that, for our current political leaders, this seems to fall into the “too difficult” category.


*The Economic Cost of Physical Inactivity in Europe, ISCA/Cebr, June 2015

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