Increases in UK life expectancy are being accompanied by a rise in the proportion of life spent in good health, according to a new study. 

The research, funded by the Medical Research Council and published in the Lancet, compared two identical studies from 1991 and 2011 to monitor changes in self-perceived health, time free from cognitive impairment, and life without disability.

Between the two studies, gains in life expectancy at age 65 (4.5 years for men and 3.6 years for women) were accompanied by gains in years free of cognitive impairment (4.2 years for men and 4.4 years for women) and more time spent in self-reported good health. While less severe disability is increasing, more severe disability is not.

The authors add that reasons for these patterns are unknown but milder disability figures might be due to increasing obesity rates in previous decades.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: "Real improvements in older peoples' health are a real cause for celebration and demonstrate the continuing importance of supporting people to age well, especially through the provision of good quality health and social care services.

"However, we know that health inequalities are still deeply entrenched across the UK and with a growing older population, particularly of those aged over the age of 85, there is still much more work to do to help every older person have a healthier and happier later life."

Commenting on the study, Dr Kenneth Rockwood from the Institute of Brain, Behaviour and Mental Health at the University of Manchester added: “Especially for cognitive health, what future progress can be made is debated. This decrease is much larger than that returned so far on the massive investments in research on dementia biomarkers and hoped-for disease-modifying therapies.

“Equally, whether improving overall health—lessening health deficits and their effects—would further result in reduced cognitive impairment is unknown.”