Report says countries must address needs of world’s aging population

April 6, 2012

The needs of the world’s growing over-60 population should be addressed “early and swiftly” to minimize the risk of future strain on health and economic resources and to maximize the well-being and productivity of what some call the ‘silver generation,’ according to a report by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council (GAC) on Ageing Society. The report is being launched on World Health Day, April 7, 2012 to mark this year’s theme, healthy aging.

“The risk from population aging does not come from aging itself, but from our possible failure to adapt to it,” said economist David Bloom, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), GAC chair, and lead editor of the report, Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? Other HSPH contributors include Norman Daniels, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics and professor of ethics and population health, Ajay Mahal, adjunct associate professor of international health economics, and Lawrence Rosenberg, research associate in the Department of Global Health and Population.

At the global level, the number of people aged 60-plus has risen from 8% of the world’s population (200 million) in 1950 to around 11% (760 million) in 2011. Those age 60 and over are expected to reach 22% (2 billion) by 2050, according to the report.

This growth is an issue in both developed and developing countries. In industrial nations, the number of those 60-plus has risen from 12% in 1950 to 22% today and is expected to reach 32% (418 million) by 2050. In developing countries, the share has risen from 6% in 1950 to 9% today and is expected to reach 20% (1.6 billion) by 2050.

The report includes 22 essays that bring together perspectives on the aging population from multiple stakeholders to provide a broad range of views on the issues for policy-makers, business, and political leaders. The essays examine the interplay between population aging and many facets of the modern world, such as urbanization, gerontechnology, international migration, and social protection programs. “The diverse chapters within it can help us invent the kind of society we might want to be part of in the 21st century,” writes Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

In their essay, “Design and Operation of Health Systems in Developing Countries,” Bloom, Mahal, and Rosenberg write that a “business-as-usual approach could lead to an inadequate healthcare supply, out-of-date healthcare systems, insufficient human resources for health and greater health inequality” in developing nations. But the authors say this bleak outcome can be avoided by focusing on reducing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs); reforming healthcare worker training to focus on NCD prevention, early detection, treatment and care; creating social health insurance programs, and developing the primary healthcare sector.

“If we do not adapt, it [the aging population] is likely to strain pension and social security systems, increase demand for acute and primary health care, require a larger and better trained health workforce and increase the need for long term care, particularly in dealing with dementia,” the report states. “The success story of population ageing and longer lives is often accompanied, in the end, by tales of doom and gloom; but it is vital that the global community not succumb.”

Read the report: Global Population Aging: Peril or Promise?

Learn more

Time Magazine’s “Ten Ideas That Will Change the World” Features HSPH Faculty Research (News at HSPH)

HSPH Economist David Bloom Selected by Paul G. Rogers Society for Group of Global Health Research Experts (Harvard Public Health NOW)

Program on the Global Demography of Aging

–Marge Dwyer