Covid: a wake-up call for health prevention

How can we ensure people stay healthy for longer? A meeting yesterday heard how Covid has highlighted the vital importance of health prevention.

Older woman works at laptop with facemask on


As we live longer, the focus has turned to healthy ageing. Currently the poorest in England live for 20 years in ill health, with women on average developing their first serious long-term health condition at 55.

How can we change that and ensure talent and experience does not go to waste because people are forced to retire early? And what is the role of work in keeping people healthy?

The 2nd International Longevity Policy and Governance Summit took place yesterday during Longevity Week 2020 and hosted by Tina Woods from Longevity International UK and addressed some of the health barriers to a positive embrace of longevity, with Covid-19 very much front and centre, given its disproportionate impact on older people.

In his keynote speech, Professor Sir Robert Lechler, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, spoke of  how Covid had shown the need for a one world approach, based on the idea that we are part of “a global village”. He said more surveillance was needed of pathogens in the animal population that could transfer to humans and that there was probably a lot more of that happening than we realised. And he said more research was needed into how our immune systems are affected by age, something he said was a bit of “a Cinderella subject”.

Sir Robert added that Covid had exaggerated health inequalities and shone a spotlight on them. He said health prevention was crucial. Many of the risk factors for Covid, other than age, such as obesity, were modifiable. Sir Richard also called for more resilient healthcare systems and he warned that this was unlikely to be the last health pandemic we will need to weather.

Covid is a wake-up call

The meeting also heard from Lord Geoffrey Filkin from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity who said the UK’s experience of Covid-19 showed there was a lot of work to do to improve the health of the nation. He said increasing longevity should be viewed as an opportunity, but the problem was that, although people were living longer, the number of years they lived longer in good health had barely improved in a decade. “Covid is a wake-up call,” he said, stating that it was not just that people who were older died more in Covid, but that those with underlying health issues and high risk factors such as obesity did the worst as did the poorest and those living in the most disadvantaged surroundings. “The response should not be just to build more hospitals. We need to look at how we improve our healthy life expectancy,” said Lord Filkin.

He acknowledged that the Government had committed to increasing healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035, but said that there had been little concrete action. So the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity and others had got together to create a strategy for how to achieve that commitment. Lord Filkin said that this involved first recognising that it is possible to bring about positive change. Evidence around smoking and cardiovascular disease showed that progress was possible, he said. Next, there needed to be a stronger focus on prevention and early detection, for instance, improving diet, increasing exercise and reducing smoking and alcoholic intake, on environmental factors such as pollution and on behavioural change, including moderate regulation and, for instance, taxation of unhealthy food. The Government had been too timid about regulation due to “uberlibertarianism”, said Lord Filkin.

Businesses can play their part, he added, as can local authorities and science and technology, although he said we should not rely on science for all the solutions. Politics, however, plays a central role – in recognising what is possible, setting goals and mobilising action, said Lord Filkin. “We need to use the imperative of Covid to show why this is necessary and how it is possible,” he added. 

Kenji Shibuya, Director, Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, added that the biggest problem with regard to the Covid response in the Northern hemisphere was the “complacency” of political leaders. He said what was needed to combat pandemics was trust, clear communications, a focus on science and technology including test and trace methods, robust public health systems and an openness to global collaboration.

The event preceded the launch of the Business for Health group which aims to help achieve the Government’s objective of five extra years of healthy life expectancy while minimising health inequalities and to enhance people’s resilience as we emerge from Covid.

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