|Press Release WHO/19
6 April 1999
|SIR PETER USTINOV'S ADVICE TO OLDER PERSONS ON WORLD HEALTH
"SPEAK LOUDER, LISTEN MORE
"I am not a person who retires very easily", said Sir Peter Ustinov. The 77-years old English actor and writer was commenting from his home near Geneva on "Active Ageing Makes The Difference" - the theme of this year's World Health Day observed on 7 April, the day the World Health Organization was created in 1948.
He continues to write books, work in the theatre and travel the world for the United Nations. John H. Glenn was also 77 years old when he went into space for a second time as part of a scientific experiment to explore the secrets of ageing. But these remarkable individuals are not alone in leading meaningful and productive lives. Throughout the world, the vast majority of 580 million older persons however diverse they may be continue to be active. And the healthier they are, the more likely will they be participating in all aspects of life in their societies.
In the course of the XXth century, the average life expectancy increased by 30 years. This represents an indisputable evidence of public health progress throughout these last 100 years. Within the next 20 years the number of older persons in the world aged 60 or above is projected to rise to over one billion with more than 700 million of them in the developing world, where the average life expectancy at birth is expected to reach 73 years in 2020 compared to 66,5 years in 2000. In the 1950s, the figure was 46,5 years.
While life expectancy is increasing, fertility rates are equally dramatically going down. Today, close to 60 countries show total fertility rates (that is the total number of children a woman is expected to have) below 2.1, which is the replacement level. In China, for instance, fertility rated dropped from 5.5 in 1970 to the current level of 1.8. And a large number of developing countries are heading in this direction such as Brazil where the total fertility rate in 1998 had already reached 2.2, from over 5.1 in the 1970s. The end result of longer lives and fewer children is, inevitably, population ageing. This happened first in developed countries but at a much slower pace. What characterizes the process in the developing world is the speed of the process. While it has taken France 115 years for the proportion of older people to double from 7% to 14%, it will take countries such as China, Thailand and Colombia about 25 years to achieve the same increase.
There are many reasons behind this rapid demographic shift, such as urbanization, improved hygiene, modernization, significant decline in childhood mortality combined with the development of contraception methods. Moreover, in many parts of the developing world some infectious diseases are gradually retreating with the vacant niche being replaced by chronic, non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers which, by comparison, take much longer time to develop.
" the combination of improved methods of treatment and of disease prevention means that 80% of children born in developed countries can expect to live beyond 70 years of age, until recently regarded as the normal span of human life: that is, on the condition that they remain non-smokers or give up smoking early in adult life", says Sir Richard Doll, eminent British epidemiologist who established the link between smoking and lung cancer 50 years ago. Sir Richard himself is in his late 80s and provides another powerful reminder of how active one can be in older age. His daily routine consists of going to his office at the University of Oxford, writing scientific papers and lecturing around the world. WHO is paying today a special tribute to Sir Richard in Geneva for his outstanding contribution to public health in the XXth century.
Population ageing has now become a global process that will increasingly affect everyone around the world. As a global process, it is bound to have significant impact on the workforce, public health and social security.
Speaking in Geneva on the occasion of World Health Day, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General called for the need "to learn how to better motivate people to change their behaviour and lifestyles to achieve active ageing".
Stressing the fact that the international community is confronted with unprecedented and far-reaching demographic changes that can have profound effect on humanity as a whole, she highlighted the challenge to developing countries:" we must be fully aware that while developed countries became rich before they became old, developing countries may become old before they become rich. We must therefore be determined in eliminating the greatest enemy of good health, i.e. poverty, particularly in its most extreme forms".
The world's growing elderly population is confronting decision-makers with the need to make choices that have far-reaching implications for society as a whole. Health systems, social services and employment practices are in the process of being reshaped to meet this rapidly emerging demographic reality. Shall we be able to rise to this challenge?
"Yes, if we adopt healthy active ageing principles", says Dr Alex Kalache, in charge of WHO Ageing and Health Programme. "We should know better than turning this century's success into next century's problem. Older persons should not be constantly looked at as part of the problem, they are in fact part of the solution. Just look at people like Peter Ustinov and Richard Doll. Their contribution to society continues to be tremendous. Healthy, active older people are a resource to their families, societies and economies. That is why we encourage people of all ages to take steps now to ensure greater health and well being in their later years."
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