WASHINGTON, United States, Thursday October 1, 2015 – With advances in medicine helping more people to live longer lives, the number of people over the age of 60 is expected to double by 2050 and will require radical societal change, according to a new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the International Day of Older Persons which is celebrated today.
Currently, the country with the oldest population in the region is Canada. However, projections based on data from the UN Population Division indicate that in less than a decade, the older population in countries such as Barbados, Cuba, and Martinique will surpass Canada’s.
“Today, most people, even in the poorest countries, are living longer lives,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, 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.”
Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas, Dr. Carissa F. Etienne added that while the developments are advances to be proud of, countries need to prepare for “the challenges that this demographic shift will inevitably bring to our societies, social protection systems, and especially to our health systems.”
Contrary to widespread assumptions, the report finds that there is very little evidence that the added years of life are being experienced in better health than was the case for previous generations at the same age.
“Unfortunately 70 does not yet appear to be the new 60,” said Dr. John Beard, director of WHO’s Department of Ageing and Life Course. “But it could be, and it should be.”
While some older people may indeed be experiencing both longer and healthier lives, these people are likely to have come from more advantaged segments of society.
“People from disadvantaged backgrounds, those in poorer countries, those with the fewest opportunities and the fewest resources to call on in older age are also likely to have the poorest health and the greatest need,” added Beard.
The report stresses that governments must ensure policies that enable older people to continue participating in society and that avoid reinforcing the inequities that often underpin poor health in older age.
The population of the Americas is 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 1 in 4 people in the Americas will be over 60 (globally, the proportion will be 1 in 5).
People in the region are now living longer. Today a 60-year-old can expect to live until age 81, that is, 21 more years. In the last five decades, regional life expectancy has increased an average of 20 years. More than 80 per cent of people born in the Americas today will live to age 60, and 42 per cent of them will live past 80. In 2025, there will be an estimated 15 million octogenarians in the region.
“Every country in the region is aging, and they are aging at a speed that has never before been seen in history. But we still have time to respond to this demographic change,” said Etienne.
“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 new report rejects the stereotype of older people as frail and dependent and says the many contributions that older people make are often overlooked, while the demands that population aging will place on society are frequently overemphasized or exaggerated.
The report emphasizes that while some older people will require care and support, older populations in general are very diverse and make multiple contributions to families, communities and society more broadly.
It cites research that suggests these contributions far outweigh any investments that might be needed to provide the health services, long-term care and social security that older populations require. And it says policy needs to shift from an emphasis on controlling costs to a greater focus on enabling older people to do the things that matter to them.