The long-term trend in life expectancy in the UK has been upwards; however, our experience of getting older varies across the nation. Some people have good physical and mental health well into old age, whereas others become frail or ill.
How we age is strongly influenced by our environment, including where we live. For both men and women, there is a 19-year difference in healthy life expectancy between those living in the most and the least deprived areas of the country.
Whether or not we live in an urban setting can also make a difference. While many of our country’s rural and coastal areas are picturesque, they can present significant challenges to protecting the health of the local population.
Our new evidence review builds on the existing evidence and suggests that older people living in rural or coastal areas may experience specific inequalities in their physical and mental health.
With almost 10 million of us living in rural areas, and older people making up a growing number of this group, it is important to understand why these health inequalities exist so that we can help to tackle them.
The evidence review aims to provide a synthesis of the evidence to support leaders in local areas in their efforts to reduce health inequalities.
Why are there public health inequalities in rural and coastal areas?
There are several drivers of health inequalities in rural and coastal areas.
One significant factor is social exclusion and isolation. Research suggests
that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 30%.
Rural and coastal areas can face infrastructure challenges, with many villages and small towns lacking frequent and reliable public transport and high-speed internet. Having sufficient numbers of healthcare workers and carers in certain areas is an additional problem.
However, living in a rural or coastal area also has benefits. Rural places often have a strong sense of community, easier access to green space and lower crime rates than urban areas. ONS figures indicate that a higher proportion of people living in rural areas feel a sense of belonging and safety in their neighbourhood compared to people living in urban areas. Coastal environments may also provide benefits, through increased opportunities for physical activity as well as the restorative and stress-reducing impact of blue space (water).
What can we do to reduce these inequalities?
Local government and NHS partners, alongside the voluntary and community sectors, play a key role in taking action to improve the health and wellbeing of their populations.
PHE and NICE
recognise that local interventions which bring communities together are some of the most valuable in addressing rural public health challenges.
Good social relationships and engagement in community life are necessary for good mental health and can help people become more resilient. By providing and maintaining community areas, green spaces and promoting public and community transport, councils can help to create a positive local environment and tackle social isolation.
Community activities such as lunch clubs can encourage older people to socialise and participate in community life. Bringing groups together in a village hall or other community space also provides the opportunity to reach older people with services, helping them to look after their wellbeing.
It is important to encourage social connections and contact for those in marginalised groups, who may be particularly affected by social exclusion. Involving older men who often find it harder than women to make friends later in life and may be reluctant to engage in community activities or social groups can also be a challenge.
is a programme that provides a place for older men in rural communities to participate in physical activities and projects such as gardening, woodwork and model-building. The initiative helps older men to meet, socialise and learn new skills, alleviating social isolation and creating a sense of purpose. With over 480 Sheds open in the UK, and more than 100 in development, it’s estimated that over 11,000 ‘Shedders’ are benefitting from Men’s Sheds across the country.
Promoting physical activity and making use of natural assets
There is potential for coastal and rural areas to use their natural assets to promote physical activity and reduce social isolation, for example, through volunteer-led walking groups or outdoor activities.
‘Stepping into Nature’
is a project led by Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty using Dorset’s natural and cultural landscape to provide activities and sensory-rich places for older people, including those with dementia and their carers. It seeks to increase physical and mental wellbeing, to reduce social isolation and loneliness, and to increase confidence and motivation for people to access the countryside.
Promoting and normalising physical activity as part of the experience of daily living for older people living in sheltered housing or residential care settings can result in further benefits.
In rural Norfolk, Active Norfolk – a partnership of organisations working to encourage people to participate in sport and physical activity – trialled Mobile Me
, a physical activity programme for older people funded through Sport England.
For ten weeks, Mobile Me
visited 65 sheltered housing and residential care homes to encourage them to get moving through games such as bowls and table tennis. The programme helped to reduce older peoples’ sedentary behaviour and fear of falling as well as increasing overall wellbeing.
Technology can be useful for providing care services to older people in the country’s most remote areas.
NHS Highland recently trialled video conferencing in remote care homes to allow doctors to speak to dementia patients in a familiar setting without the need for extensive travel.
The technology enabled care home residents to be assessed and reviewed more quickly and monitored more regularly. Video conferencing also helped care home staff to access specialist knowledge and advice more easily, helping them to feel more confident and actively involved in their residents’ care.
However, it’s important to find a balance between remote and direct face-to-face contact that many older people value.
Supporting local areas
With advances in healthcare and a greater understanding of how healthy lifestyles, supportive communities and environments can help us to live longer, enabling older people to lead fulfilling lives for as long as possible is more important than ever.
Recognising the health inequalities faced by people in different areas of the country, including rural and coastal places, is a crucial step to ensuring that all older people have the opportunities and care relevant to their needs, no matter where they live.
PHE’s evidence review seeks to share what is known about these issues, so that through Locality Plans, local Health and Wellbeing Strategies and other mechanisms, local authorities and the NHS locally are supported to prioritise work to address the health inequalities that exist within and between coastal and rural areas.
To find out more you can read the full report: An evidence summary of health inequalities in older populations in coastal and rural areas
. You can also read our rural health report produced with the Local Government Association: Health and wellbeing in rural areas
, and our recent health inequalities report: Place-based approaches for reducing health inequalities
Reproduced with thanks to Public Health England and Exposure: