The National:

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Who wants to live forever? It's a question loaded with sarcasm. I have had experiences with relatives who at the end of a long life (often in a nursing home) have such a reduced quality of life that I have thought: I hope that doesn't happen to me. A passing thought, as who contemplates their demise till it is upon you.  

The strange case of instant ageing

A couple of years ago in my early 50s I was fit and healthy, working out regularly, playing competitive hockey, Thai boxing and cycling (I was training to do the NC500). Then I wasn't. I was pretty much housebound, struggled going up and down the stairs and went from extreme cycling to not wanting to leave the house unaccompanied in case I couldn't get back.

During lockdown I was diagnosed with Long Covid. When asked to describe it, I often say, I felt like I woke up one morning in my late 80s – every muscle refusing to work, every joint sore, memory and eyesight deteriorating rapidly and absolutely no energy. I now know that is a negative stereotype of what it means to be that age. I am now, a couple of years later, able to exercise most days, starting to believe I will play hockey again and I've even started training on the stationary bike and shadow boxing. 

READ MORE: How to start a national conversation on a Scottish wellbeing economy

Can we live longer whilst living better?

However, the experience focused my thinking on longevity and how my illness may have robbed me of a few years. If I am able to live longer, how can I avoid that negative stereotype; live longer but also live better?

There is a clear link between happiness, wealth and longevity. That link includes housing and environment, stress levels due to money worries, the relative diets of richer people and poorer people, etc. Healthy life expectancy, (how long you can work for) seems to have an additional factor in the style of work you do, hard meaningless labour ain't so good. It stands to reason that if you achieve a wellbeing economy that has at its heart a focus on health, happiness, equality, shared prosperity, fairness (decent wages and decent pension etc) and greater shared sense of community, then people will likely live longer, more fulfilling lives. 

They say “it's the economy stupid” don't they?

Almost all the issues with our society are due to the failures of the systems that govern our lives. Our collapsing neoliberal economic system is creating poverty, inequality, anxiety, stress, obesity and even a crisis of loneliness. 

The latest figures for life expectancy in Scotland sit at 76.5 years for males and 80.7 for females. Both of those figures are over two years lower than the equivalent for England. Some research I did a decade ago found that the longest living parts of the UK were the boroughs of Chelsea, Kensington and Westminster. Think about that – people from poorer areas of the UK don't live as long and although they pay the same percentage of their wages in National Insurance, they get less pension. In general terms: The poor subsidise the wealthy and the north subsidises the south. 

Scots are dying younger

Worryingly, life expectancy in Scotland is falling, indicating a crisis of wellbeing. The National Records of Scotland state that life expectancy has decreased by three weeks for males and 5.7 weeks for females since 2019-2021. Given rising inequality and general lack of social mobility, that will be a continuing trend until we accept we need to redesign the economic system to one that focuses on protecting the wellbeing of society – not the just wealth of shareholders.

READ MORE: How consumption changes in a wellbeing economy

Thoughts on wellbeing and a better, longer life

Lets start with the fact that the UK’s basic state pension is the second worst in the developed world. Paying a Wellbeing Pension (£235.00 per week) would reduce the money worries of older folk, people who due to age feel greater anxiety anyway. 

The flip side of that is the Real Living Wage, which should be the official minimum wage. Far too many people start their working lives on poverty wages. We even have young couples holding down two jobs to pay for nursery education but have no chance of ever owning their home.

How about an Actual Health Service?

The NHS is a revered institution but there is a bit of a myth surrounding the name. What we have is a National "Stop People Being Seriously Ill and Dying" Service. 

The National: File photo

Earlier interventions, health ambassadors, teaching cooking and dietary requirement skills, ending poverty and creating pathways for social mobility are all part of the wellbeing policy menu.

Prevention rather than emergency action could well be cheaper to run in the long run. Health and Social Care is the largest slice of Scotland’s budget, costing £19 billion in the last set of figures. If we want to save some of that money, don't cut the budget – figure out how to change the economic system so it generates fewer negative health outcomes. 

If we manage that and combine it with better wages and a fair pension, people will live longer but more importantly stay active, mobile and healthier for longer and avoid that negative stereotype of not being able to enjoy life in old age.