Michelle Mitchell: We must cut the rich-poor health gap

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The gradual increase in the state pension age has been mainly justified by the projected increase in life expectancy. The number of people aged 60 or over is projected to rise by over 50 per cent in the next 25 years. People are living longer and are expected to contribute to the economy for longer.

But although life expectancy has increased, healthy life expectancy has not. Geography and socio-economic status account for a great disparity between different groups of older people.

The Marmot report offers a shocking snapshot of this inequality. It shows that, on average, people in the poorest neighbourhoods die seven years earlier than those from the richest neighbourhoods and have 17 fewer disability-free years. Most people's health declines long before they reach 65, and only a quarter can expect to be free of disabilities by the age of 68.

Before forcing people to work for longer, we need to enable everybody to reach state pension age in good health, regardless of wealth and income. Otherwise, any rise in state pension age will have the greatest impact on the most disadvantaged, who will have fewer years to enjoy their pensions and are more likely to have to give up work before they can draw them.

If politicians want people to work for longer, they must set out clear plans to reduce health inequalities. They must also ensure that older workers have a range of employment opportunities, and scrap forced retirement legislation.

Michelle Mitchell is the director of Age Concern and Help the Aged