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How old is the UK? An Investigation into the Ageing Population of Britain

19th April 2018

In 2016, 18% of the UK population was over the age of 65, according to the Office for National Statistics. The data has revealed that in some regions, as many as 1 in 3 people are over 65 and that the UK population is predicted to continue growing, reaching over 74 million by 2039.

Hover over the map to find out some interesting statistics about the ageing population in the different regions of the UK and read on to find out some other interesting facts about the over 65 and over 85 populations in the UK.

At first glance, London has a very low population of older residents, even though it is one of the most accessible places in the UK. In fact, 8 out of 9 areas with the lowest population of over 85s are London boroughs. Meanwhile, 5 out of 10 UK areas with the highest proportion of over 65s are in the South West, one of the most remote parts of Britain.

Interestingly, a 2017 report by Public Health England shows a map of the most deprived areas in the UK, and pockets considered to be ‘more deprived’ correlate with the oldest regions of the country as shown in the ONS data. For example, areas in West Somerset, Mid Devon, North Norfolk and Lincolnshire are all listed as ‘more deprived’. The report states: “There is a widespread belief that people who live in the countryside are better off, both in monetary terms and in terms of health and wellbeing than those who live in towns and especially inner cities.” Public Health England goes on to say that while this is certainly true for some areas, “for a number of years, there has been a growing realisation by national and local government that broad-brush indicators measuring the largely positive health, wealth and wellbeing of rural communities can mask small pockets of significant deprivation and poor health outcomes.”

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this data, what it tells us about the importance of accessibility and local services, particularly in rural communities, and what we can do to help older people and those with limited mobility.

How old is the UK? An Investogation into the ageing population

South West


The rural South West, encompassing the counties of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall, is one of the most isolated regions of the UK. The ONS data shows that 4 out of the 6 regions with 1 in 3 people currently over the age of 65 are in the South West – East Devon, Christchurch, East Dorset and West Somerset. As of 2016, Christchurch also has the highest population of over 85s in the UK, at 5.6%.

In such remote areas, local services are vital. Older residents need to be able to easily reach their GP, or hospital, and even amenities such as shops. Public transport links are an excellent way to ensure that older people with mobility problems who live in remote areas can access these amenities. Therefore, it’s important that these services are maintained not just in the South West, but across the UK.


In Cornwall, 1 in 4 people are over the age of 65. And this figure is expected to rise to almost 1 in 3 by 2036. Residents in areas such as the remote Lizard peninsula face a 30-mile journey (1-hour drive) to the Royal Cornwall Hospital, and with the closure of community hospitals across the South West, the NHS is under increasing pressure. According to Public Health England, only 55% of rural households compared to 97% of urban households are within 8km of a hospital, and 57% of rural residents live within 4km of an NHS dentist, compared with 98% of the urban population.

On page 12 of its 2017 report, Public Health England states: “Along with reductions in central government grants to local authorities, expenditure on adult social care services has declined and this has led to provision focusing on those assessed as having either critical or substantial needs. While the ‘personal budgets’ awarded to people in rural areas are lower, charges for social care are, on average, higher in rural areas, significantly so with respect to home care charges.”

East Devon currently has one of the UK’s highest populations of over 85s, at 5.2%, and 1 in 3 people in the area are over 65. In neighbouring North Devon, 1 in 4 people is currently over 65, with this figure expected to increase to 1 in 3 by 2036. In West Somerset, the population of over 65s will have risen to 42% by 2036. With the added issue of a rapidly ageing population, it’s important that local communities pull together to help older residents.


Peter Heaton-Jones, MP for North Devon, believes rural isolation is one of the biggest problems facing older people in the area: “The biggest challenge facing older people in my view is rural isolation and all the difficulties associated with that. From getting to the shops, to loneliness; we must work to ensure that local services and our communities do all we can to alleviate these challenges.”

Despite these challenges, North Devon’s MP believes the region’s services are coping well with the ageing population: “It is widely known that North Devon’s demographic changes are occurring earlier than for most of the country, and as such we have unique challenges. I think that broadly local services are coping well. Northern Devon Healthcare Trust has been at the forefront of planning for these, and is working closely with Devon County Council. I have been impressed by the work that has been done to integrate service provision to alleviate pressures.”

So what is being done to help older people? Peter Heaton-Jones says he has been urging central Government to increase spending on healthcare:

“I have been lobbying central Government to increase local healthcare and local government spending. The government has provided real-terms increases to both of these sectors.

“I also campaign on care home issues. It is incredibly important that we have the right regulatory and complaints system in place so that families can feel confident that their loved ones are being treated with dignity and respect. I have worked with campaign groups to lobby Care Ministers on a range of issues, and I am pleased that the Department of Health has responded positively.”

London and the South East


Despite a study by the Greater London Authority revealing that older Londoners are the fastest growing population group in London, the ONS study reveals that 9 out of 10 areas with the lowest proportion of over 65s in the whole of the UK are London boroughs - Hackney (7.3%), Haringey (9.3%), Islington (8.8%), Lambeth (7.8%), Lewisham (9.3%), Newham (7.1%), Southwark (8%), Tower Hamlets (6%), Wandsworth (9.4%). This trend continues in the over 85s age range with 8 out of 9 UK areas with the lowest proportion also being London boroughs - Hackney (1.7%), Hammersmith and Fulham (1.9%), Islington (1.7%), Lambeth (1.6%), Newham (1.7%), Southwark (1.7%), Tower Hamlets 1.5%), Haringey (1.8%).

Although London and the surrounding area have some of the lowest populations of older people in the UK, the city and the rest of the south-east, which consists of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey and West Sussex, are widely considered to be some of the most accessible places in the UK.


The London borough of Tower Hamlets had the lowest percentage of over 85s in the UK in 2016 (6%) and is predicted to have the lowest percentage in 2026 (6.9%) and 2036 (8.8%).

Although London generally has a younger population, however, parts of the South East do have a high population of older people. Almost a third of people in the district of Rother in Sussex, for example, are over 65, and this is expected to rise to 40% by 2036. Rother also currently has the second-highest population of over 85s in the UK at 5.8% and will have the joint second-highest by 2026 (5.8%) and 2036 (8.8%) with West Dorset. Oxford, on the other hand, has a notably low population of over 65s, at just 11.4% as of 2016.



According to some research from the ONS on the Welsh Government website, the number of people living in Wales aged 65 and over will increase by 232,000 by 2041. This demonstrates that Wales, like the rest of the UK, will need to consider aiding older people in rural areas as well as those residing in its larger towns and cities.

In Wales, the places currently with 1 in 4 people over 65 are Powys, Conwy and the Isle of Anglesey and by 2036, it’s estimated that the only four regions with less than 1 in 4 people over the age of 65 will be Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and Rhondda Cynon Taf.

By 2036, the Mid Wales county of Powys will have the joint third-highest population of over 85s in the UK at 8.7% alongside West Somerset, while the over 65 population in the area is set to be 38%, which includes the remote Brecon Beacons.

Cardiff, Wales’s capital, has a relatively low population of over 65s compared to other parts of the country as it currently stands at 14%, although this is set to rise to 18% by 2036. In Swansea, 19% of the local population is over 65, but this is set to rise to 24% by 2036. The over 85 population in Swansea and Cardiff is just 3%, which demonstrates that Wales’s two biggest urban areas have some of the lowest populations of over 65s and 85s in the UK.

East Midlands


The East Midlands boasts a fascinating mix of large cities like Nottingham, Leicester and Derby with rural districts like Rutlands, Rushcliffe and North Kesteven. As shown by the ONS study, this mix offers different challenges to authorities in the region.

By 2036, for example, 1 in 3 people in Lincolnshire will be over the age of 65, yet only 5% of the local population of North East Lincolnshire will be over 85. In contrast, 29% of the population of East Lindsey is currently over 65 and this is expected to rise to 1 in 3 people by 2036.

The ONS research also highlights that, similarly to other large cities in the UK, Nottingham has a low level of over 65s and 85s. Currently, 11.5% of the population is over 65 and this is set to rise to just 15% by 2036. Only 2.3% of the population is over the age of 85 and this could rise to 2.5% by 2036.

Derby has a higher over 65 population (16%) than the other larger cities in the East Midlands, Nottingham and Leicester (12%), and by 2036 the population could increase to 21%, which is very high when you compare it to Manchester (12.35%) and Bristol (15%).

West Midlands

Incorporating the key cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry, the West Midlands region (not to be confused with the West Midlands County) covers a large area, and its geography is immensely diverse. With its boundaries stretching into the rural counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire, and the south-eastern portion of the Peak District National Park, answering the question of ‘How old is the West Midlands?’ is not straightforward.

As of 2016, Birmingham’s population of over 65s stands at just 13% and is only predicted to rise by a further 3% by 2036. Its suburbs, however, tell a different story. The districts of Bromsgrove, Solihull, Dudley and North Warwickshire are currently home to at least 1 in 5 over 65s. Shakespeare’s home district of Stratford-on-Avon (encompassing Stratford-upon-Avon) has an even larger population of over 65s, at 1 in 4. To the west, the population of over 65s in the Malvern Hills district currently stands at 27% and is predicted to rise to 36%, over 1 in 3, by 2036.

As well as the Malvern Hills, the West Midlands is made up of other rural areas, including the Wye Valley, Shropshire Hills, Cannock Chase and parts of the Cotswolds. As with other UK regions, the trend appears to show that most areas of the West Midlands will see their populations of over 65s increase to roughly 1 in 4 or even 1 in 3 by 2036, with the exception of more urban areas like Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Leicester and Worcester.

East Anglia


Largely a rural area, the region of East Anglia – encompassing the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire – is nevertheless also home to several large towns and cities, including Norwich, Cambridge, Peterborough and Ipswich. This contrasting geographic landscape goes some way towards explaining the significant discrepancies that exist in the region’s demographic make-up.

More than one in three people in the East Anglian district of North Norfolk are over-65, with West Somerset currently the only area of the UK home to a higher proportion of people in this age group. By 2026, it is predicted that, along with Rother in East Sussex, the district will also have the joint second-highest proportion of over-85s, at 5.8%; by 2036, this figure is forecast to rise to 8.7%. 

The demographics are significantly different elsewhere in the county, with 8% fewer over-65s living in South Norfolk. Norfolk’s coastal communities, meanwhile, are home to more over-65s than its inland areas, with every seaside town in the region (with the exception of Great Yarmouth) having at least one in four people in this age group.

Although the statistics are not as pronounced in the neighbouring county of Suffolk, officials there are nevertheless acutely aware of the challenges presented by the ageing population. In October 2017, council leader Colin Noble made reference to the prediction that, by the late 2030s, working-age people will be a minority in Suffolk. He noted at the time: “We have to look at the likely impact of all this. If we still think we can retire at 60 or 65 that could mean that we have 35 or 40 years of retirement. What does that mean for us?”

Yorkshire and the Humber


Yorkshire, the UK’s largest historic county, is renowned for its stunning countryside, charming towns and villages, and proud cultural identity. Its famous beauty, however, can sometimes mask the fact that there are significant pockets of both rural and urban deprivation in the county and surrounding region – something which is exacerbated by the rapidly ageing population.

Around one in four people are currently over the age of 65 in Yorkshire. In the areas of Craven, Scarborough, Hambleton, Ryedale and the East Riding of Yorkshire, the proportion of over-65s is predicted to rise to more than one in three by 2036.

Dr Lincoln Sergeant, North Yorkshire’s Director of Public Health, discussed the issue of the county’s ageing population in comprehensive detail in a 2017 report entitled ‘Healthy transitions; Growing old in North Yorkshire’. Dr Sergeant’s report emphasised that the county’s wealthiest areas already have a life expectancy of 13 years longer than those in the poorest, and he proposed that urgent action is required to address this disparity, as well as improving the treatment of over-65s in general: “A more radical rethinking of how we embrace frail older people as integral to our societies and communities is needed. The fact that someone needs care does not reduce their importance as a member of the community or diminish the contributions they still make.”

North West

Despite its isolated areas, the South of England has long been considered more prosperous than the North, with London’s position playing a large role in this. The North West in particular continues to struggle, and in 2016, research showed that 10 of the UK’s 12 towns and cities in greatest economic decline are in the North, despite the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative.

Life expectancy differs considerably in the North compared to the rest of the UK. According to the ONS, between 2010 and 2012, the average life expectancy for men in the North West stood at 77.7 years, compared to 80 in the South West. For women, the life expectancy for the same period stood at 81.7 in the North West and 83.9 in the South West.

The ONS data on the UK’s ageing population reveals some interesting statistics. For example, as of 2016, the districts of Wyre and Fylde (above and below Blackpool) are the only two areas in the North West with 1 in 4 residents over the age of 65. The city of Blackpool itself remains at 21%. A recent report suggests that, from 2009 to 2013, men born in Bloomfield in Blackpool had a healthy life expectancy of just 47.1 years. Blackpool is considered one of the poorest cities in the UK.

With health apparently in decline in the North of England, what will this mean for the older population in these areas? By 2036, it is predicted that the only areas of the North West to have fewer than 1 in 4 residents over the age of 65 will be Manchester, Salford, Preston and Liverpool. Social care must be a priority in order to support the older population not only in cities, but also in the more deprived areas of the North West.

The rural area of South Lakeland in Cumbria is currently home to more than 1 in 4 people (28%) over the age of 65, with this figure expected to rise to 37% by 2036. The neighbouring district of Eden has similar statistics. Both areas encompass parts of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks – two isolated areas with many towns and villages which can become vulnerable during winter weather. As with other remote parts of the UK, some older people in the heart of the Lake District can face an hour’s journey to the nearest hospital.

North East


Combining Teesside, Wearside and Tyneside, the North East of England is perhaps most famous for its major cities – Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland. Despite its more cosmopolitan areas, however, some districts of the North East stretch into the remote North Pennines.

County Durham is currently home to 1 in 5 people (20%) over the age of 65. By 2036, this is predicted to rise to 1 in 4. This area is home to many small towns and villages in the North Pennines, which can be problematic for older people, as the nearest major hospital may be up to 1 hour and 15 minutes away.

In 2016, the county of Northumberland was home to almost 1 in 4 people over the age of 65 (24%). By 2036, this is predicted to rise to 1 in 3. Encompassing Northumberland National Park, the area has many remote towns and villages, many of which are more than an hour’s drive from the nearest major hospital.


Currently, the areas of Scotland with the highest populations of over 65s (roughly 1 in 4 people) are the Eilean Siar (25%), Argyll & Bute (25%), Dumfries & Galloway (25%), South Ayrshire (24%) and the Scottish Borders (24%). This contradicts the pattern in other parts of the UK, as the areas with the highest populations of over 65s are the areas that are home to Scotland’s major cities. By 2036, it is estimated that 1 in 3 people will be over the age of 65 in most Scottish regions, with the exception of Aberdeenshire, Glasgow, Edinburgh, West Lothian and Midlothian.

In more remote areas, such as the picturesque Isle of Skye, older people must be prepared should they experience a fall or become unwell. The nearest hospital is in Raigmore, Inverness - 120 miles away. This slow journey takes roughly three hours by road. Fortunately, there is an air ambulance service available. Although Shetland, Britain’s most northerly enclave, is a 12-hour ferry journey north of the Scottish mainland, it is home to a major hospital. Currently, 1 in 5 people in Shetland is over the age of 65, with this figure expected to rise to 1 in 4 by 2036. Further south, the Orkney Islands have a slightly higher population of over 65s, at 1 in 4, predicted to increase to 1 in 3 by 2036.

Although the country has worked hard over the years to provide reliable health and transport services for older people in remote areas, Scotland is facing difficulties - there are now fears of a GP shortage in the country. According to a report by Third Force News, a survey revealed that 24% of surgeries in Scotland are advertising at least one vacancy. Age Scotland’s chief executive Brian Sloan said: “The shortage of GPs is very concerning and could have a serious impact on older patients. We often hear from older people who have difficulty making appointments with their GP when they need them.

“This is having a knock-on effect on other parts of the NHS, increasing the chance of poor health outcomes and putting additional strain on our hospitals. Primary care physicians play a vital role in building relationships with their patients and identifying problems at an early stage, from symptoms of dementia to social isolation.”

How you can help


It is clear from the ONS data that the UK’s ageing population, particularly in rural areas, could be severely detrimental to the wellbeing of British people. Social isolation and loneliness, as well as deteriorating health due to poor transport links or an unreliable health service, are becoming increasingly likely as a result. However, with appropriate government funding, community support and thorough research, a positive trajectory can be achieved.

If you’d like to help older people in your area, Age UK has a number of initiatives you can sign up to, including the charity’s befriending service, which will allow you to regularly visit an older person who may be dependent on the use of mobility aids like new stairlifts and largely restricted to staying at home. Age UK’s telephone befriending service can also make huge improvements to an older person’s wellbeing. Here are a few other services worth considering:

Royal Voluntary Service

As one of the largest volunteer organisations in the UK, the Royal Voluntary Service has 25,000 members helping older people to stay active and independent. We spoke to Dr Allison Smith, Head of Strategy and Development at the Royal Voluntary Service, to find out more about their work:

“Our volunteers provide much-needed support to the NHS and help to make our communities happier and healthier places to live. Volunteers are engaged in a range of activities from helping people in hospital to make their stay shorter to supporting their recovery once discharged from hospital and running community-based clubs – from dining, sheds, tai chi to gardening – that keep people socially connected and reduce loneliness and isolation.

“We offer volunteer opportunities to everyone, across the life course, however social connection is particularly important later in life. Research by the Centre for Ageing Better looked at some of the drivers for ageing well; in addition to having ‘good enough’ financial security and health, staying socially connected and having a sense of purpose was found to be very important. Volunteering can provide that and can help to maintain or build social connection during key transition periods, particularly later in life – spousal bereavement, retirement or illness, for instance. Previous research conducted by Professor James Nazroo also found older people who volunteer are happier than their counterparts who don’t. Staying connected with our community is vital for body and brain health.”

If you want to get involved in supporting older people within their local communities, Dr Allison Smith suggested a few ways you can do so: “We offer a wide range of meaningful volunteering roles. More formal ones could include providing support onwards or helping an older person recover after a period in hospital. Informal ones are often based on community groups and aim to reduce loneliness and isolation as well as encourage people to stay active. We are famous for our lunch clubs for instance – some of which have been running for over 60 years – all thanks to the dedication of our volunteers.”

Contact the Elderly

Contact the Elderly is a national charity dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people. The organisation is supported by a network of volunteers and arranges Sunday afternoon tea parties for groups of older people who live alone. Each older person is collected from their home by a volunteer driver and each group is warmly welcomed by a different host each month. 

Cliff Rich, Contact the Elderly’s CEO, told us a bit more about how Contact the Elderly’s work provides vital social connections for isolated older people:

“As many parts of our country age, it’s vital that communities help to look out for lonely and isolated older people, who so often go unnoticed. Our service empowers communities to do exactly this. We facilitate free monthly Sunday afternoon tea parties for lonely older people, helping them reconnect with their community.

"We have over 11,000 volunteers working across the country to help older socially isolated people make new friends and develop their own local support networks. Our tea parties provide a vital social lifeline for over 6000 older people, who otherwise would struggle to get out, meet new people and connect with their community.

"We’re always looking for new volunteers (drivers, hosts and group coordinators) so we can maintain and extend our service by setting up new groups and supporting existing ones. If you would like to meet some amazing older people from your community or know an older person who you think is socially isolated, please do get in touch.”


Iriss publishes evidence and other resources on topics related to social services. The charity, based in Glasgow, aims to improve how the social services workforce in Scotland accesses and makes use of knowledge and research. Take a look at Iriss' report on preventing loneliness and social isolation in older people.

This news article is from Handicare UK. Articles that appear on this website are for information purposes only.