In 1900 life expectancy at birth in the UK was only 46 years for men and 53 years for women. Just over a century later life expectancy at birth has increased by around 30 years and by 2007 had reached 77.5 years for men and 81.7 years for women. The population aged 85 years and over, often termed the `oldest old', are now the fastest growing section of our population. For the 1921 cohort only 18% of men and a third of women reached the age of 85 years but for the 1951 birth cohort it is expected that almost half of men and 60% of women will achieve that age. The important question for health care planners and society is whether the large number of those who will reach 85 years in the future are similar in health characteristics to those attaining 85 years now. This question was addressed by substantive results and by methodological papers in the `Cohort' theme of the Joining Forces on Mortality and Longevity conference in October 2009. Here we provide an overview of the papers, some of which are presented in full in this issue (see Murphy (2009), Di Cesare & Murphy (2009), O'Connell & Dunstan (2009), Forfar (2009))
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