A Doctor Writes…

A Doctor Writes…

Our Lives and Times

Your Doctor has been thinking about life spans. Not least this has been caused by public arguments over the affordability of pensions having defined benefits and in particular final salary pension schemes. How long will we live for?

Let us start with the Office for National Statistics, that publishes data every two years, see [1]. In 2014 to 2016, a newborn baby girl (respectively boy) in the UK could expect to live 82.9 (respectively 79.2) years assuming mortality rates remain the same. The upside is quite high and a girl (respectively boy) born in 2014 to 2016 had a 32% (respectively 21%) chance of surviving to at least age 90, with around a quarter of all babies living beyond 90! (Not 90 factorial.) And the longer you live, the further you can expect to go of course (since you haven’t died already).

What about the pensioners? In 2014 to 2016, a woman (respectively man) in the UK aged 65 (born around 1950) had an average further 20.9 (18.5) years of life remaining. This expectancy has increased but it is slowing down. For those who were 65 in 1995 (born around 1930), at that time a woman (respectively man) in the UK had an average further 18.2 (14.7) years of life remaining.

There are data available at [1] and a breakdown by home nations shows consistently lower values for Scotland. At the time of the Scots’ independence vote, this led Your Doctor to wonder whether an independent Scotland could actually afford the pensions, health and social care of its older generation. Nevertheless there is clear work to do in Scotland and this data set is one of the best justifications for that Barnett formula (a mechanism used by the Treasury to automatically adjust the amounts of public expenditure allocated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) which is so often seized upon by the English.

Your Doctor likes to claim some honorary Scottishness, on the grounds that one of his many degrees is from a Scottish university, and indeed he is soon to be awarded an honorary degree by another Scottish university. Though it is more than thirty years since he lived north of the border, he is a regular visitor. It is a relief that Scotland remains part of the union, but this should not be taken for granted even as the SNP back off from future referenda opportunities. Scotland has a proud and separate history of education, learning and science. Many years ago Your Doctor was a member of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, which from memory, did not then actually bother to charge the subscriptions since it received more than enough income from its journals! Is that still the case?

So does a longer and longer, happy retirement await us all, with especially things improving in Scotland? Well, if many cardiovascular risks, cancers and physical diseases become eradicated through medical advances we may each face the possibility of the onset of dementia in some form. That is also a sad prospect for our former dependents upon whom we might become a burden, even in the most loving and caring of circumstances. The government does not really seem to have any type of proactive dementia strategy – just go and get patronised at a memory clinic if you are almost gone enough to fail some simple test: and what do you do if you can sense early signs? There is also a particularly difficult and cruel form of aphasia that mostly affects teachers and lecturers, which takes away their ability to find words. None of this is ending well for us: and worse, some large pharma companies are even pulling out of dementia research (see [2]).

Yet if we could luckily keep our marbles and our physical health (we are born to die of something!) there will be other challenges. Perhaps the biggest of these is isolation and loneliness. This is a problem now that touches almost all families since we have become more dispersed than previous generations. Nobody wishes loneliness on anybody: but are we complicit?

Perhaps we should, as a community, do much more for our retired mathematicians and maths teachers. Your Doctor thinks we should interact more with our retired colleagues and find some new ways for their experiences and contributions to be valued by all members of the maths community. Your Doctor asks all readers to suggest initiatives that might be led by the IMA to build on what we have and support the retired members of the broad maths communities for all of our professional sectors.

This is an opinion piece and the views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the IMA or the MT Editorial Board.


Office for National Statistics (2017) National life tables, UK: 2014 to 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yc8gz9x8 (accessed 06 March 2018).

BBC News (2018) Pharma giant Pfizer pulls out of research into Alzheimer’s, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-42633871 (accessed 06 March 2018).

Reproduced from Mathematics Today, April 2018

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Image credit: Dr Writes illustration  © Institute of Mathematics and its Applications

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