Our blue Earth is turning gray. Advances in medicine have allowed more people to live longer than ever, but those improvements come with a significant downside: The number of individuals over the age of 60 will double by 2050 — creating “radical” changes and challenges for healthcare.
That’s the latest word from the World Health Organization, which has released a new report that suggests many of those living longer than their parents or grandparents will not necessarily be leading healthier lives.
“Today, most people, even in the poorest countries, are living longer lives,” said Margaret Chan, M.D., director-general of WHO. “But this is not enough. We need to ensure these extra years are healthy, meaningful, and dignified. Achieving this will not just be good for older people, it will be good for society as a whole.”
Carissa F. Etienne, M.D., director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas, said the greying of the world’s population will pose enormous challenges to healthcare, society, and social programs across the globe.
“These are advances that we should be proud of,” said Dr. Etienne, of the increasing longevity rates. “It’s important to note, however, that we need to be ready to respond to the challenges that this demographic shift will inevitably bring to our societies, social protection systems, and especially to our health systems.”
Among the findings of the new WHO report:
- While people are living longer, many are suffering with chronic health conditions — such as cancer, heart, disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s — that did not plague earlier generations, in part because of bad lifestyle habits. “Unfortunately 70 does not yet appear to be the new 60,” said John Beard, M.D., director of WHO’s Department of Ageing and Life Course. “But it could be. And it should be.”
- People living in North and South America are among the world’s oldest. In 2006, there were 50 million older adults in the region, and that number is expected to double by 2025, and again by 2050, when one people in the Americas will be over 60 (compared to one in five globally.
- In the last five decades, regional life expectancy has increased an average of 20 years. As a result, a person who is 60 today can expect to live until age 81.
- More than 80 percent of people born in the Americas will live to age 60, and 42 percent will live past 80.
- By 2025, an estimated 15 million octogenarians in the region will live in North and South America.
- The country with the oldest population in the region is Canada. But projections indicate in less than a decade, the older population in countries such as Barbados, Cuba, and Martinique will surpass Canada’s.
“Every country in the region is aging, and they are aging at a speed that has never before been seen in history,” said Dr. Etienne. “But we still have time to respond to this demographic change.
“This report makes clear that aging in and of itself is not the problem, nor are older persons the problem. Rather, it is the loss of 10 years of healthy living that is the problem, as our health and social systems are not ready to provide independent living and long-term care for those who need it. The report also makes clear that for achieving and maintaining a fully functioning life, older adults need to not merely fight against disease, but to live out their full potential in conducive environments.”
The report suggests more resources will be needed to provide the health services, long-term care, and social security that older populations require. It calls for making communities more “senior friendly,” retooling the healthcare industry to cater to the needs of older people, and developing long-term care programs for people who will need them in old age.
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