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Over-85s are UK's fastest growing age group

Published on 11 March 2013 11:30 AM

Today Age UK launches a definitive report into the lives and health of people over 85, the fastest growing demographic group in the UK redefining the frontiers of human existence.


People over the age of 85 are now the fastest growing demographic group in the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates there are currently 1.5 million people in the UK over the age of 85; by 2050 this will have grown to 5 million.

But in spite of the size of this social group, to date there has been a lack of comprehensive information about them.

Today Age UK hopes to address this situation by launching the definitive report on the lives and health of the so-called 'fourth generation', whose needs will change the parameters of public policy and family life.

Understanding the health needs of the Oldest Old

Age UK's report 'Improving Later Life. Understanding the Oldest Old.' (PDF, 1MB)opens link in new window brings together international expert opinion to identify the trends, challenges and opportunities presented by this diverse group of people.

Importantly, the report provides evidence of a relationship between levels of physical and mental activity throughout a lifetime and incidence of frailty and poor health in later life.

The research found that most 85-year-olds have between 3 and 6 long-term conditions, yet the majority rate their health and quality of life as good. For these frail older people, the report found there to be significant health benefits to tailored exercise and physical activity, which led to improvements in participants' cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, and balance.

Mind and body connections

Interestingly, this exercise didn't just benefit participants' physical wellbeing; mood and cognitive functions also received a boost. 

The research showed that older people who do not smoke, who are more physically fit and active, and who are generally healthier tend to have better thinking skills.

And relationships and outlook on life also have an important role to play.

The research found that social relationships are just as important as not smoking, exercising and having a healthy diet in maintaining physical and mental health and determining a longer life. Loneliness can speed up cognitive decline and memory problems, and - in the face of dementia, in particular - it is important for people to maintain friendships.

People in late old age reported that a self-deprecating sense of humour, optimism, adaptability and a feisty sense of independence helped them to tackle the challenges thrown up by this stage of life.

NHS failing to support those with multiple health problems

The report challenges traditional medical assumptions, and warns that medical research trials and the organisation of the NHS services are failing to meet the needs of older people, who are by far the greatest users of health services.

Key findings include:

  • Accepted indicators of ill health cannot be taken as accurate in relation to people in late old age. In late old age, risk factors of disease (such as high cholesterol, low thyroid or hypertension) and markers of health are different when compared to those at young age.
  • Most clinical trials systematically exclude people over the age of 75 and patients with multiple health problems. Such a dearth of research is resulting in medical practitioners being unable to draw on good quality research in managing patients with multiple health needs. The consequences of multiple drug prescription (polypharmacy) account for 11% of hospital admissions in old age.
  • Older people with multiple health needs are the main users of health care, which doesn't currently meet their needs. The dominant NHS model of clinics which treat single, rather than multiple health conditions needs to be challenged and changed to better meet the needs of these patients. Treating health needs in isolation leads to patients having to attend multiple clinics that are often inconvenient, conflicting and crucially, misses key opportunities for health improvement.

'Older people need to be cared about, not just cared for'

Age UK's Charity Director General Michelle Mitchell commented, 'This growing generation of people over the age of 85 is now redefining the nature of old age.  These are people who are rich in experience, living through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the creation of the NHS and the social and civic transformation of the 1960s.

'It is unacceptable, however, that this new fourth generation is mainly excluded from medical research trials and social research programmes.

'Above all this report finds that older people need to be cared about, not just cared for. This means listening and responding to an individual's views and choices, so that an all-important sense of dignity and identity can be maintained throughout a person's life course.

'Age UK hopes the report will positively challenge policy makers, medical researchers, health and social care professionals to develop research programmes and tailored public services to support the new generation of the oldest old.'

Download 'Improving Later Life. Understanding the Oldest Old.' (PDF, 1MB)opens link in new window

You can find out more information about our research into people aged 85+ at

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Last updated: Dec 05 2018

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