Health risks we’ll face if we work until 70

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With the pension age set to rise to 70, there are things many of us need to consider if we want to finish our working life with our health intact.

Yes, we’re living longer, as Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey loves to remind us. A child born in Australia today can expect to live to around 82, up from about 55 in 1900.

Unfortunately, these extra years are not always healthy ones. “Not all of the benefits of increased life expectancy are equating to [improved] quality of life,” says Professor Mark Harris, executive director of the Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity at the University of NSW.

And as the number of older workers grows – as predicted with a shift to a pension age of 70 – so too will the proportion of people in the workforce affected by conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, cognitive problems as well as vision and hearing loss, Harris says.

This is despite evidence that working in older age can be good for our health by offering stimulation, social connection and a sense of purpose.

Put simply, our risk of many health problems increases as we age, with the increased risk often beginning in our 40s and climbing steadily from then on. In fact, more than a third of people aged between 45 and 64 have a chronic health condition, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show.

Lifestyle measures including diet and exercise can help prevent this, but not enough of us are doing the right things. And even for those who are, it’s sadly not the whole story. Genes and a range of other factors we don’t fully understand can all take a negative toll.

“As we get older [health] becomes more unpredictable,” Harris says. “There is an element of chance. The more you roll the dice [with every extra year of living], the more the chances keep accumulating.

“Increasing the pension age from 65 to 67 [as is being phased in from 2017 to 2023] was pretty non- controversial. But [in] increasing it by another three years, we’re starting to get into a situation where the risks are greater. So we need to be more thoughtful about that.”

Not just an issue with physical work 

Age-related health problems aren’t just an issue for those doing hard physical work; they can potentially impair performance for any job – especially those requiring extended concentration, Harris says.

“It really does apply to all workers.”

Also, as we get older, we’re more likely to have more than one health condition.

The proportion of people with two, three or four chronic conditions roughly doubles when comparing 45 to 64-year-olds and those over 65. (The most common two conditions among those 45 or older are high blood pressure and arthritis.)

Multiple conditions also make it more likely someone will be taking multiple medications, and these bring with them the risk of side effects, interactions and adverse events.

Even simply scheduling appointments with doctors for multiple treatments, can be “really complicated” when you’re juggling the demands of a job, he adds. “Generally our health systems are not geared to that. We’re geared to people with particularly serious chronic conditions being older, not working, and able to attend appointments.

“For many people, there may be a benefit to working longer – but there needs to be safety nets. We need a system to monitor how well people are functioning and we need to have options for people who do become disabled or sick so that we don’t leave them destitute.

“Through no fault of their own, not everyone is going to be able to continue working.”

By Cathy Johnson
ABC Health and Wellbeing
May 2014

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