The response to the consultation on the Budget pension proposals has much to welcome in it. The Government appears to have listened to the arguments that their concerns about the impact on financial markets of the reforms bordered on paranoia, and have agreed to continue allowing private sector defined benefit schemes and funded public sector schemes to process transfers. They have committed to continuing to consult on the idea of extending the new freedoms to defined benefit schemes themselves, which would avoid the need for a lot of expensive fee-generating transfers into defined contribution arrangements.

And yet. The section on the guaranteed guidance suggests that, despite the opinions expressed in the consultation, the Government is still primarily focused on guidance “at the point of retirement” despite the probability that this is likely to become just one of the criticial retirement phases following these reforms. And the reform of pensions legislation seems overly concentrated on facilitating innovations in annuities rather than allowing the level legislative playing field between different forms of pension provision that would be required to prevent the death of defined ambition.

But the real problem I have with the consultation response concerns the minimum pension age. A point i have made before. Currently 55, the Government has decided to increase this to 57 by 2028. I think this is a mistake. Why promote freedom in the form you take your benefits but not when you take your benefits?

And the need for this freedom is evident. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) release on healthy life expectancy at birth by local authority suggests that, in many areas, this may condemn people to work until they are sick.

Here is the graph for males in local authorities where the healthy life expectancy (HLE) is less than the state pension age (SPA):

HLE males

And the equivalent graph for females:

HLE females

For each local authority area you need the red line to be above the minimum pension age to be 95% sure the average member of its population is able to retire, even if only partially, in good health. For the males, Blackburn, Blackpool, Islington and Tower Hamlets already have red lines below a minimum pension age of 55. Increase this to 57 and the number of red lines below multiplies alarmingly. And this is just an average – many will have life expectancies well below this.

Of course we assume life expectancy will increase between now and 2028, but healthy life expectancy? One of the problems is that it has not been measured for very long, and there have been disagreements about how it should be measured. As the King’s Fund shows, in 2005 a change to the methodology caused healthy life expectancy to plunge by 3 years, suggesting a rather optimistic approach previously. The ONS methodology is set out here.

It seems clear to me that there is sufficient doubt around how long people around the UK are expected to remain in good health for the Government to pause before raising the minimum pension age. After all we already know how those in ill health are likely to be treated if they try to claim they can’t work.

ATOS

A flower for every person that died within 6 weeks of ATOS finding them fit for work

At times it all sounds like the joke about the visitor to Hell being shown by their PR department how the bad press had been much exaggerated. There were concerts on Wednesday afternoons and coffee mornings on Fridays, the manure was only ankle deep in many places and the eternal flames were optional. However, on accepting his place for eternal damnation, another senior devil he had never seen before walked in to announce “Ok, tea break’s over. Back on your heads!”

It would seem that tea break is over.

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I have written about false positives before, as have many others, but the media stories keep on coming. The latest reports, by the BBC most notably but also carried by the New Scientist and a number of other sources, display such an unfortunate ignorance of the issue of false positives that they risk raising false fears in the minds of sufferers of mild cognitive impairment and their families.

The BBC article makes a number of statements:

1. British scientists have made a “major step forward” in developing a blood test to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

2. Research in more than 1,000 people has identified a set of proteins in the blood which can predict the start of the dementia with 87% accuracy.

Neither of these statements are true. What the new test can do is guess right about patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) going on to develop Alzheimer’s disease (AD) within a year in 87% of cases. What it cannot do is predict whether someone with MCI will develop AD with 87% accuracy. The research article is here.

It all comes down to the likelihood of someone with MCI developing AD. It does not help that there is no general agreement of a definition for either term. The research reported on used the Petersen criterion for MCI. The likelihood of people within the population with MCI developing AD each year is again unknown, but 6 quite small studies (a total of 476 people across all the studies, with different average ages and sample sizes among the groups) carried out in North America analysed by Petersen et al in 2001 suggested that it lay between 6% and 25%, with an overall average rate of 12.5%.

So let’s assume that it is 12.5%. In a population of 1,000 people with MCI, we would expect 125 to develop AD. The test will identify 109 of them on average. Unfortunately, assuming the same accuracy rate of 87%, it will also give false positives for 13% (or 114) of the 875 not expected to develop AD in any particular year. That means that, of the 223 who test positive, less than half (49%) are actually expected to develop AD within a year. As the NHS choices website points out, in one of the few sceptical articles I could find, this is no better than tossing a coin.

If we assume the probability of moving from MCI to AD is at the higher bound of 25%, the positive predictive value (or PPV, as it is known) increases to 69%. However if we assume the lower bound of 6%, the PPV falls to 30%. In other words, if we get a positive blood test for this panel of 10 proteins, we currently do not know whether it is twice as likely to be a true positive than a false positive, or twice as likely to be false as true. Or anywhere in between.

Despite this, Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK (clearly no conflict of interest there in promoting stories which promote the idea that Alzheimer’s research is highly effective) is widely reported as describing the study as a “technical tour de force”, while also acknowledging that the current accuracy levels risked telling many healthy people they were on course to develop Alzheimer’s.

In some reports it was pointed out that it was unlikely that the test would be used in isolation if it eventually made its way into clinics. A positive result could be backed up by brain scans or testing spinal fluid for signs of Alzheimer’s, they said. However if the test is no more predictive than a coin toss that is hardly encouraging.

There was more from Dr Karran: “This gives a better way to identify people who will progress to Alzheimer’s disease, people who can be entered into clinical trials earlier, I think that will increase the potential of a positive drug effect and thereby I think we will get to a therapy, which will be an absolute breakthrough if we can get there.”

This is simply untrue. Clearly it is important to support research into therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, but in raising funds for this the ends do not justify any means. Additional funding gained through false claims for any particular discovery will come at the expense of funding in other equally important areas. Like agreeing a definition of MCI and AD for instance, or better data on the transition probabilities from MCI to AD at different ages, without which a lot of the more laboratory-based research will be a waste of time as it will be unclear how best to apply it.

So let’s be careful how we report these things. People’s hopes and fears are at stake.

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