Akinwale B, Lynch K, Wiggins R, Harding S, Bartley M, Blane D. Work, permanent sickness and mortality risk: a prospective cohort study of England and Wales, 1971-2006. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 2011; 65 (9): 786-792

Background In recent decades, labour market participation has fallen in men, with large amounts of this decline accounted for by increases in permanent sickness. There is speculation that the rising numbers of permanently sick incorporate more people with less severe conditions than was previously the case. This paper examines the relationship between labour market position and subsequent mortality around State Pension Age.

Methods Using linked census and death records in the ONS Longitudinal Study, samples of men aged 55-69 and women aged 50-64 were selected from each decennial census, 1971-2001 and their health followed up. Differences between the employed, unemployed and economically inactive in age-specific death rates, Standardised Mortality Ratios and odds of reporting limiting long-term illness were examined.

Results Labour market activity in late middle age has changed since 1971. For example, the proportion of men employed at ages 60-64 years has fallen by 39%, and the proportion permanently sick has more than doubled. Despite this change, there has been stability in the RR of mortality between labour market positions. Working people have the lowest risk of premature death, while, relative to working people, the permanently sick continue to have mortalities around three times higher among men and four to five times higher among women.

Conclusion The evidence does not support the notion that the permanently sick are becoming less seriously ill. The persistence of the group's raised mortality suggests that measures aimed at encouraging later life employment should ensure provision of work environments suitable for people with chronic illnesses.