Fact Sheet N°135
POPULATION AGEING-A PUBLIC HEALTH CHALLENGE
By 2020 More than 1 000 Million People Aged 60 Years and Older Will Be Living in the World, More Than 700 Million of Them in Developing Countries
One of the main features of the world population in the 20th century has been a considerable increase in the absolute and relative numbers of older people in both developed and developing countries. This phenomenon is referred to as "population ageing".
From a demographic point of view population ageing is a result of both mortality and fertility: fewer children are born and more people reach old age.
Population ageing has become an important development issue that requires urgent action. Projections into the first quarter of the 21st century, prepared independently by a number of organizations and scientists, merit the closest attention:
In developed countries, population ageing has evolved gradually as a result of an earlier decline in fertility and improving living standards for the majority of the population over a relatively long period of time after the industrial revolution. Technological breakthroughs in the field of medicine, including the development of new and effective drugs and vaccines, contributed to this process much later.
In developing countries, population ageing is occurring more rapidly because of rapid fertility decline and an increasing life expectancy due to medical interventions based on the use of advanced technology and drugs. These interventions have provided effective means to treat and prevent many diseases that used to kill people prematurely. Also of importance is the fact that population ageing in the developing world is accompanied by persistent poverty.
The rapidly growing absolute and relative numbers of older people in both developed and developing countries mean that more and more people will be entering the age when the risk of developing certain chronic and debilitating diseases is significantly higher. As such, population ageing presents new and serious challenges for national and international public health.
By 2020, it is projected that three-quarters of all deaths in developing countries could be ageing-related. The largest share of these deaths will be caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diseases of the circulatory system (CSDs), cancers and diabetes.
Population ageing has also been projected to aggravate the magnitude of mental health problems. This will happen because of the increasing life expectancy of those with mental disorders and an ever-growing number of people reaching the age at which the risk of such disorders is high.
Visual impairment and vision loss increase dramatically with age. One striking example is cataract. Cataract may have different origins, but they are mostly related to the ageing process.
These are but a few examples that demonstrate some of the public health challenges that population ageing presents for policy-makers. They certainly do not cover the whole range of ageing-related problems. Furthermore, many developing countries are already facing a double burden: the health problems of an ageing population, and continuing high rates of communicable disease.
The emerging social and the public health consequences of ageing, especially in developing countries, need to be taken very seriously. In the majority of these countries, poverty, lack of social security schemes, continuing urbanization and the growing participation of women in the workforce - all contribute to the erosion of traditional forms of care for older people.
In order to respond to public health challenges of population ageing, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched in April 1995 a new programme on ageing and health, which stems from and builds upon the achievements of its predecessor - the programme of health of the elderly.
The emphasis of the new programme is on healthy ageing rather than on "the elderly". Its key components include database strengthening, dissemination of information, advocacy, community-based programmes, research, training and policy development.
Living longer offers unprecedented opportunities for personally and socially fulfilling lives, but it also presents individual and societal challenges related to quality of life in old age, including independence, social interaction, health care and community involvement. In order to respond to these challenges countries have to develop sound and affordable policies that perceive ageing as a natural process, which continues throughout the life span. Effective community-based programmes need to form an integral part of such healthy ageing policies.
The creation and strengthening of a reliable database is a prerequisite for the development of national policies on healthy ageing. It is also crucial for raising awareness among policy- and decision-makers about the speed of population ageing and its public health consequences. This awareness is still low, particularly in developing countries.
National policies on ageing should rely on the results of research aimed at cost-effective public health interventions to improve the quality of life in old age. Such results need to be widely shared among countries.
WHO is particularly committed to improving knowledge and skills of primary health workers through training activities in a variety of countries to deal with ageing-related problems.
Living longer is both an achievement and a perpetual challenge. Investing in health and promoting it throughout the life span is the only way to ensure that more people will reach old age in good health and capable of contributing to society intellectually, spiritually and physically.
For more information, please contact Health Communication and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva, Tel (41 22) 791 2532, Fax (41 22) 791 4858.
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