The number of older people coping with four or more diseases is set to double between 2015 and 2035, research has suggested. This could have significant implications for employers managing older workers or those caring for elderly dependents.
Employee health and wellbeing – the growing demands on the ‘sandwich generation’
The number of older people coping with four or more diseases is set to double between 2015 and 2035, a study by academics at Newcastle University has concluded. A third of these people will be diagnosed with dementia, depression or a cognitive impairment, causing pressure on our ‘sandwich generation’.
The study, published in the journal Age and Ageing, rather grimly predicts that over the next 20 years the largest increase in diagnoses will be in cancer (up by 179.4%) and diabetes (up by 118.1%) in the UK’s older population. The study concluded that arthritis and cancer will see the greatest rise in prevalence.
Two-thirds of life expectancy gains, predicted as 3.6 years for men, 2.9 years for women, will be spent with four or more diseases.
Among those aged 85 or over, all diseases, apart from dementia and depression, will more than double in absolute numbers between 2015 and 2035, it added.
Obesity and physical inactivity
Professor Carol Jagger, Professor of Epidemiology of Ageing at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing, said: “Much of the increase in four or more diseases, which we term complex multi-morbidity, is a result of the growth in the population aged 85 years and over.”
However, the research also highlighted that those aged 65-74 years, in other words entering old age but not yet elderly – what Jagger termed “young-old adults” – were more likely to have two or three diseases than in the past. This is primarily because of their higher prevalence of obesity and physical inactivity.
“These findings have enormous implications for how we should consider the structure and resources for the NHS in the future. Multi-morbidity increases the likelihood of hospital admission and a longer stay, along with a higher rate of readmission, and these factors will continue to contribute to crises in the NHS,” she added.
Sandwich generation caught in the middle
So, what should employers make of this? First, it is clear this trend is set to put more even pressure and demand on our already hard-pressed NHS.
Indeed, even though as research it is unconnected, it is hardly surprising The Daily Telegraph recently reported that increasing numbers of patients are at risk of going blind while waiting for cataract surgery because of rising waiting times in more than half of NHS authorities. We can only expect more of this as pressures and demands intensify.
Second, Professor Jagger’s comment about this trend also being seen in 65-74-year-olds should ring loud alarm bells with employers. Yes, a lot of this burden of chronic disease is set to be borne by the growing ranks of retirees, but not all.
Our workforce is aging and more people will have no option but to work later into life. Therefore employers are going to be faced with the challenge of managing employees who are carrying a range of day-to-day chronic illnesses.
Even if these are relatively minor ailments, they may still have an effect on day-to-day productivity or an individual’s competency to carry out certain tasks or duties.
Third, even where it is retired generations who are suffering with this multi-morbidity, it will be their working-age children or relatives who will be caring for and looking after them. This may be a juggling act to increasingly challenge employers.
What can employers do to help the sandwich generation?
The idea of a sandwich generation – juggling work with children at one end and elderly dependents at the other, and the financial, physical and emotional burdens of both – is not new.
But it is one employers will increasingly need to wake up to, as Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, explains.
“This research should be a wake-up call for employers. As our population and our workforce ages, employers are going to have to get smarter in terms of workplace flexibility. Our perceptions of what it means to be ‘fit’ to work may have to change.
“Moreover, while this research, quite rightly, focuses on the impact of serious conditions, even relatively minor niggling or irritating illnesses can still ‘get in the way’ as a worry, emotional burden or distraction from the job or task at hand,” she adds.