United Kingdom

Longstanding illness/disability

Graphs on this page:

Supporting information:

Key points

  • Around 4 million adults aged 65 and over report a longstanding sickness or disability.  Around half of these are aged less than 75 and the other half aged 75 and over.
  • This represents a third of all those aged 65 to 74 and half of all those aged 75 and over.
  • The proportion of people aged 65 and over reporting a limiting long-standing illness or disability has remained broadly stable over the last decade.
  • For those aged 65-74, the proportion with a limiting longstanding illness or disability increases as income decreases. The differences by income are less for those aged 75 and over.
  • Those aged 65 and over who had routine or manual jobs are somewhat more likely to suffer a long-standing illness or disability than those with non-manual work histories.
  • The proportion of adults aged 65 to 74 who have a limiting long-standing illness is higher in Wales, the North of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland than elsewhere.

Why this indicator was originally chosen

As with other age groups, health problems amongst older people are not evenly distributed but are concentrated amongst the poorest.  While life expectancy has been increasing overall, in many cases the number of years free of sickness and pain have not. 1  Failing health is an inevitable consequence of growing older, but some of the effects of poor health can be avoided, and preventative health care can reduce the overall burden of ill health suffered.

Many disabled people are aged over 60.  Older people with disabilities and health problems have greater costs to bear.  A substantial proportion of older people fail to claim disability benefits, and even among those who do receive benefits, not all additional costs are covered, depending on the nature of the disability or illness.  This indicator shows the proportion of older people reporting ill health or a disability which limits their activities, with the second graph showing the disparity across occupational groups.

Definitions and data sources

The first graph shows the proportion of people aged 65 and over who report having a long-standing illness or a disability that limits the activities they are able to carry out.  The data is shown separately for those aged 65-74 and those aged 75+.

The second graph show the same information but in terms of absolute numbers rather than proportions of the population.  ONS revised population estimates – which take account of the 2001 Census – have been used to derive the numbers from the proportions.

The third graph shows how the proportions vary by household income.  Again, the data is shown separately for those aged 65-74 and those aged 75+.  To improve its statistical reliability, the data is the average for the latest three years.  Note that the household incomes have been ‘equivalised’ (adjusted) for household size and composition.

The fourth graph shows how the proportions vary between social classes for all those aged 65+.  To improve its statistical reliability, the data is the average for the latest three years.

Following advice from ONS, the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SeC) has been used for all official statistics and surveys since 2001.  It replaced Social Class based on Occupation (SC, formerly Registrar General’s Social Class) and Socio-economic Groups (SEG).  ONS felt that a system of categorisation based on skill levels was outmoded and misleading given changes in the nature and structure of industry and occupations.

A person’s NS-SeC position (their ‘class’) depends upon the combination of their current or last main job and their employment status (i.e. whether an employer, self-employed, a manager, a supervisor or an employee).  A person’s job title is coded according to one of the 353 unit groups (consisting of 26,000 job titles) of the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), and their employment status is coded according their employment relations and the size of their organisation.  These codes are transferred into eight analytical classes, which have then been collapsed into three (‘simplified’) analytical classes for the purposes of the graph.

The data for the first four graphs is from the General Lifestyle Survey (formerly called the General Household Survey) and relates to Great Britain.  The question asked was “Do you have any long-standing illness, disability or infirmity? Long-standing is anything that has troubled you over a period of time or that is likely to affect you over a period of time.  Does this illness or disability limit your activities in any way?”.  Note that:

  • The survey moved from financial years to calendar years in 2005.
  • The data for 1997/98 and 1999/00 is missing because the survey was not carried out in those years.
  • The data for the fourth graph is from the ONS annual report rather than the actual dataset.

The fifth graph shows how the proportion of those aged 65-74 who have a self-defined limiting long-standing illness varies by region.  The data is from the 2001 Census and relates to the United Kingdom (table so017 for England and Wales, S16 for Scotland and S016 for Northern Ireland).

Overall adequacy of the indicator: medium.  While the General Lifestyle Survey is a well-established government survey designed to be representative of the population as a whole, the inevitable variation in what respondents understand and interpret as ‘long-standing’ and ‘limiting activity’ diminishes the value of the indicator.

Relevant 2007 Public Service Agreements

Overall aim:  Tackle poverty and promote greater independence and well-being in later life

Lead department

Department for Work and Pensions.

Official national targets


Other indicators of progress

Employment rate age 50-69: percentage difference between this and overall employment rate.

Pensioner poverty.

Healthy life-expectancy at age 65.

Over 65s satisfied with home and neighbourhood.

Over 65s supported to live independently.

The numbers

Graph 1 and 2

Year Percent Millions
Men aged 65 to 74 Women aged 65 to 74 Men aged 75 Women aged 75+ Persons aged 65 to 74 Persons aged 75+
1991/92 40% 34% 46% 51% 1.8M 1.9M
1992/93 40% 38% 49% 52% 1.9M 2.0M
1993/94 41% 39% 45% 52% 2.0M 1.9M
1994/95 38% 39% 45% 49% 2.0M 1.9M
1995/96 37% 37% 41% 52% 1.9M 1.9M
1996/97 42% 40% 50% 53% 2.0M 2.1M
1998/99 36% 39% 48% 51% 1.8M 2.1M
2000/01 38% 35% 44% 48% 1.8M 2.0M
2001/02 36% 37% 47% 45% 1.8M 2.0M
2002/03 43% 39% 52% 53% 2.0M 2.3M
2003/04 37% 37% 41% 46% 1.8M 1.9M
2004/05 33% 33% 43% 48% 1.6M 2.0M
200535% 38% 44% 48% 1.8M 2.1M
200637% 39% 47% 51% 1.9M 2.3M
200737% 36% 47% 48% 1.8M 2.2M
200832% 34% 45% 48% 1.7M 2.2M

Graph 3

Income quintile Aged 65-74 Aged 75+
Poorest fifth 46% 49%
2nd 40% 47%
3rd 34% 52%
4th 29% 48%
richest fifth 23% 35%

Graph 4

Social class Men Women All
Managerial and professional 35% 37% 36%
Intermediate occupations 38% 41% 40%
Routine and manual occupations 43% 46% 45%

Graph 5

Region Percent
East 36%
East Midlands 42%
London 40%
North East 50%
North West 46%
Northern Ireland 49%
Scotland 46%
South East 34%
South West 37%
Wales 50%
West Midlands 43%
Yorkshire and The Humber 45%

1. Department of Health, Our healthier nation: a contract for health, Stationery Office, 1998, page 8.