Addressing Aging

The world population is rapidly aging. Are we prepared?

We’re getting old, but that’s not necessarily bad, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will double from 11 percent to 22 percent, it points out. In fact by 2050, 2 billion people in the world will be 60 or older. In part, however, this reflects our success at addressing childhood disease and maternal mortality, notes WHO.

At the same time, as the world population ages so rapidly, we face both challenges and opportunities. On one hand, it strains pension and social security systems, increases demand for acute and primary healthcare, necessitates a larger, better trained health workforce and increases the need for long-term care, particularly with regard to dementia. On the other hand, older people are a great resource for their families and communities, and they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the world. Societies that can adapt to this changing demographic will have “a competitive advantage” over those that don’t, says WHO.

Interesting fact about world aging
Not only will there be twice as many people worldwide who are over 60 years, by 2050, WHO estimates that nearly 400 million will be 80 years or older. If so, the majority of middle aged adults will have living parents. In addition:

  • By 2050, 80 percent of older people will live in low- and middle-income countries, including Chile, China and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Africa, the number of older people will likely grow from 54 million to 213 million between 2000 and 2050.
  • Because population aging is occurring more rapidly in low- and middle-income countries, they will have a smaller opportunity to prepare.
  • Older people in low- and middle-income countries carry a greater disease burden than those from wealthier countries. They tend to die earlier from heart disease, stroke and chronic lung disease and experience higher rates of visual impairment and hearing loss.
  • Visual impairment, dementia, hearing loss and osteoarthritis are some of the most common challenges older people face.
  • The risk of dementia increases with age, with an estimated 25-30 percent of people 85 or older having some degree of cognitive decline.

What does it mean?
People need to consider what an aging population means for the healthcare system, WHO points out. Issues such as limited mobility, frailty and other physical and mental health problems are expected to require many aging individuals to rely on long-term-care services, including nursing homes, residential and hospital-based care. Particularly in developing countries, where the number of older individuals unable to care for themselves is expected to quadruple by 2050, systems will have to be in place.
As healthcare workers spend increasingly more time caring for the elderly, they will need to be trained on aging-specific issues, particularly with regard to managing chronic illness and preventing disease. The time to start is today, according to WHO, noting that “healthy aging starts with healthy behaviors in earlier stages of life.” This includes diet and nutrition, physical activity and avoidance of health risks, such as smoking, overconsumption of alcohol or overexposure to toxic chemicals.

Finding solutions
An aging population presents challenges – especially for lower-income countries – but not insurmountable ones, says WHO. The organization recommends provisions such as state-funded pensions to protect older people against extreme poverty, and primary healthcare to support their long-term care.

WHO is also working to identify strategies to help strengthen healthcare systems, making services more effective and accessible for elderly people. Currently, the organization has programs in place that focus on the prevention of blindness and deafness. In addition, WHO supports the development of technology designed to:

  • Better monitor health status and detect early signs of disease.
  • Connect older people to healthcare.
  • Ensure better data collection and monitoring.
  • Create training opportunities for healthcare workers and caregivers. This includes reviewing (and where necessary, revising) medical curricula and university training.
  • Develop new diagnostic, monitoring and assistive devices.
  • Assist older people with functional loss to remain independent.

And, solutions such as these must be carried over to lower-income countries, as well, adds WHO. The sooner people, healthcare workers and organizations put population aging on their radar, the better prepared they will be to address – and help solve – issues as they arise.

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