In England 9.8m people – or 19% of the population – live in rural settings ranging from coastal villages to market towns to large, open expanses like the Yorkshire Dales.
But experts caution that while on average people in rural areas have better health than those in cities, the popular idea of affluent rustic life is a misconception.
Instead, they say, official statistics have failed to capture the reality that many residents scattered across rural communities face deprivation, poverty and poor health.
“Within a rural community there are significant inequalities between parts that actually are very wealthy and parts that are quite deprived,” said Dr Rashmi Shukla, Public Health England’s regional director for the Midlands and East of England and lead author of the report.
Access to health services is also of concern, the authors note, with GPs, dentists and other services further away than in urban areas. Indeed, while 97% of urban households lie within 8km of a hospital, the figure for rural households is just 55%. In addition, rural areas often lack of public transport, while poor broadband and mobile phone network availability hinders communication and access to online health services, banking, and shopping.
Social isolation, she adds, is a particular problem for older people – a sector of society that is larger in rural communities, with 23.5% of residents over the age of 65, compared to 16.3% in urban areas. An ageing rural population, the authors point out, brings a number of challenges. These include the fact that older people often have poorer health and greater care needs, issues compounded by the greater distances to healthcare services and poor public transport. “Financial poverty in rural areas is also highly concentrated amongst older people, with around one-quarter of those in poverty in pensioner households,” the authors add.