Our Ageing Population: How Chronic Illnesses Are Set to Rise (And The Secret to Reducing Your Risk)

Population pyramids. I remember them back when I was studying GCSE Geography – 300 years or so ago. They're a...

Population pyramids. I remember them back when I was studying GCSE Geography – 300 years or so ago.

They're a way of displaying data visually on a graph, showing how specific populations are comprised and expected to change over time. You're probably already familiar if you've ever studied a humanities-based subject, but essentially high birth and mortality rates lend themselves to a triangular shape: broad at the bottom and thinning towards the top. This shape was typical of the UK population 200 years earlier when lots of babies were being born, and also, life expectancy was much lower.

Over the last two centuries, however, the UK population has changed: people now live longer, women are educated, working and have fewer children later in life. Jobs are safer. Healthcare is more accessible, etc.  

With fewer people being born and life expectancy now longer, the shape of the UK pyramid is less like a triangle and more like a beehive: narrower at the bottom and growing broader further up.  

This beehive shape can create problems.

Fewer children being born and more people living into advanced older age puts pressure on health and welfare services and has an economic impact as fewer people enter the workforce.

Researchers have known for many decades that an ageing population creates problems, but in July 2023, this was expanded and explained in a series of projections compiled in a report by The Health Foundation.    

The report suggests that by 2040, nearly 1 in 5 people will have a health condition like dementia and cancer, up from 1 in 6 in 2019.  

The BBC adds that people living with major illnesses in England ‘will rise nine times faster than the healthy working age population.’ This could significantly affect health and social services across the country.  


People walking along an urban street in the early evening

So, what type of illnesses are we talking about?  

Dementia, diabetes, cancer, and heart failure are all included in the projections, along with chronic pain and chronic kidney disease.  

ITV reported that cases of dementia are expected to rise 45% by 2040, heart failure by 92%, cancer by 31%, diabetes by 49%, chronic pain by 32% and anxiety or depression by 16%. By age 70, people are more likely to have three long-term conditions, which will rise to five by age 85.  

It’s hard not to feel disheartened by this information. For many of us, it’s not just about life expectancy but how long we can live in good health, as chronic illness can be life-limiting, life-threatening, or both.

But there’s some hope.

Firstly, this report is a projection of what could happen rather than a prediction of what will. It's a means of preparing current and future policymakers for decisions that will impact our society both now and in years to come.

Community-based care is one suggestion. This is regular support for people with chronic illnesses outside a traditional hospital setting, taking pressure away from front-line health services.

But one of the biggest takeaways from this report is that there is something we can all do to reduce our risk of developing chronic illness as we age – exercise.

When it comes to good health, many of us are used to hearing people say that there’s no magic bullet, but physical activity is something the NHS refers to as a ‘miracle cure’. Lifestyle changes aren’t always easy to start or maintain, but exercising regularly and following a nutritionally balanced diet is one of the best ways of reducing your risk of developing chronic illness both now and in the future.  

According to the NHS, regular exercise reduces your risk of death by up to 30%.

Obesity is among the biggest drivers behind the projected poor health outcomes in The Health Foundation's report. Exercise reduces the risk of a person developing obesity and Alzheimer’s, dementia, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer (including breast and bowel), anxiety and clinical depression.

Exercise can be as simple as taking brisk walks, swimming, cycling, and even gardening, or it can be as intense as climbing mountains or running an ultramarathon.   



The NHS recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week for people aged between 19 and 64, which averages to 22 minutes per day, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.

Using data from 30 million participants and 196 studies, researchers from the University of Cambridge found that higher levels of exercise led to lower rates of premature death and chronic disease. Those exercising for 150 minutes each week had a 31% lower risk of dying in general, a 29% lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 15% lower risk of dying from cancer than inactive people. Moreover, the study also found participants to be 27% less likely to develop heart disease and 12% less likely to develop cancer.  

Vigorous activity is most beneficial, but according to the New York Times, as little as 10 minutes can make a difference—great news for those new to exercising or anyone struggling to improve their physical health.

Projections of a surge in ill health as our population ages are concerning, but you're not powerless against the statistics. You'll find many people online offering a 'magic bullet' for long-term health and wellbeing, but the answer may be more straightforward and more effective than you think. If regular exercise can significantly reduce your risk of developing one or more chronic illnesses and your risk of early death by 30%, why are so many of us failing to do even the bare minimum?

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