Medical advances inevitably result in citizens living longer lives, which we can all agree is basically a good thing. However, this results in a population that is not only larger overall, but also older on average. This change presents its own particular challenges for many aspects of society in the UK, including employment, economics and of course, healthcare. As of 2011, 16.4% of the population was aged 65+, but this value is increasing all the time. It is estimated that by 2039, 1 in 12 people will be older than 80!
Older patients have a much higher frequency of certain chronic conditions than average, such as heart disease and atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat). This will require more support staffing in these areas, which may divert funds away from other departments if the budget cannot be increased.
Another obvious factor is that of frailty - older individuals can typically not move around as easily, and may be at greater risk of damage from common injuries such as collisions and falls. They also are more likely to need longer periods in hospital or in care elsewhere, as well as provision of mobility aids (wheelchairs, scooters and the like) and in-home care or social workers.
Furthermore, as older patients are more likely to suffer from multiple concurrent illnesses, this can often make their healthcare needs more complex, which in turn increases pressure on multiple NHS departments to meet with the patient and communicate between themselves. Additionally, this means longer stays in hospital which reduces the number of beds available for other patients, which is one of the most common causes of delays in treatment.
This all means that in a time of intense budget cuts and staff shortages, NHS services can become very stretched, particularly during the winter. This is true both of ambulance services and GP offices - three out of ten ambulance trusts in England declared a critical situation in the winter of 2014.
Certain steps could be taken to mitigate the effects of the aging population, which mostly centre around lifestyle changes. The UK government published the public health ‘White Paper’ in 2004 which aimed to improve public awareness of these changes, which include healthy eating and physical exercise every day. Additionally smoking was banned in all workplaces in 2007.
These changes aim to improve the health of every member of society such that chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are less prevalent, and prevent them from acting as such a large drain on NHS resources in order that better healthcare can be provided for everyone. This way the problems can be reduced in advance rather than than requiring very expensive treatment later on.