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We're living an extra 20 years, so we need to adapt


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LIFEMAG Original

We're living an extra 20 years, so we need to adapt

by Aoife Gahlawat Published on 10th Nov 2015

by Aoife Gahlawat Published on 10th November 2015

According to this year’s World Health Organization (WHO) report on aging, we will live an average 20 years longer than 50 years ago. While this number varies based on one’s socioeconomic status and/or home country, it is predicted that by 2020, the number of over 60’s will outnumber children <5 years. This wave of population aging is happening faster than ever before, and it is going to be a major global challenge to cope with this shift. In addition, this increase in the aging population will mean that there will be further opportunities for the elderly, including entrepreneurial opportunities, which will most likely affect perceptions and economic situations.

Why is the population aging?

A number of factors influence our aging population. The WHO report explains how the increased life expectancy is due to a combination of factors, namely declining mortality rates. This decline differs demographically; we see that in high-income countries longevity is continually extending, whereas in low to middle-income countries childhood mortality as well as death from infectious diseases is rapidly decreasing.

Interestingly, a marked global drop in fertility rates is also pushing this trend, which will impact the structure of populations. According to a recent UN report, the average fertility rate worldwide has dropped from 3 children to 2.5 compared to 20 years ago, particularly in Europe, where the average is at an all time low of 1.6 children. This trend comes from a number of factors, namely birth control, and a surge in highly educated, career-focused young women.

Improvements and better access to medical care, as well as the eradication of disease also has a major impact on our aging population. Last year alone, 10 new cancer therapies were approved by the US FDA, aiming to extend the life of cancer patients. The development of vaccines which can prevent infectious diseases, particularly in developing countries, has also had an immense impact on global longevity.

Although the report highlights some general factors, one’s socioeconomic status is not necessarily predictive of country of origin. For example, a study found that children from the richest areas of Britain can expect to live a full, active life for as much as 20 years longer than their counterparts in the poorest neighborhoods. One reason for this can be chronic stress induced by financial strain, accumulating in a number of serious health issues. Another reason can be attributed to diet. Eating healthy, natural food is nowadays often more expensive than convenience foods which can have devastating effects on an individual's health over time. The British government are even considering introducing taxes on unhealthy foods to try and deal with this problem. Better education for children on these issues may help to balance the difference in aging.

The challenges of an aging population

No matter what socioeconomic background, or part of the world one is from, we are going to live on average 20 years longer, and it is going to be a global challenge to deal with this shift. The WHO report stresses the economic burdens associated with aging like healthcare and pension costs. Plans need to be put in place now in order to cope with this.

A sub-report focuses on creating age-friendly cities, emphasizing important points of change for an aging population. Transportation, health services and housing are major factors to be worked on. After that comes participation in society, be it through community support, employment or social inclusion. A combination of efforts in those areas could lead to an era of age-friendly cities which promote healthy aging and enhance quality of life for the elderly.

Deep and fundamental changes in health services are called upon in the report. Almost a quarter of the overall global burden of death and illness is in the over 60s. Programs tailored to specific countries should be set in place to deal with localized health issues. Moreover, policies aiming to prevent and better manage chronic illness will have a long-term benefit. Shedding an optimistic standpoint, Dr Chatterji from the WHO states “Collectively, we need to look beyond the costs commonly associated with aging to think about the benefits that an older, healthier, happier and more productive older population can bring to society as a whole."

The report goes into much detail on health issues in an aging population and how global policy-makers and governments need to implicate systems to deal with this transformation. Though, a major finding is that if those extra 20 years are experienced in good health, societies can directly benefit from an extended workforce, compared to poor health where physical and mental capacity is declined, leading to negative implications upon society.

Opportunities opening up to the aging population

As well as challenges, an aging population opens up new opportunities. With an extra 20 years, one may consider following their passion and starting a second career as an entrepreneur for example. Evidence is starting to accumulate showing such changes. Recent statistics found that in the United States, 23% of new entrepreneurs in 2011-2012 were aged between 55-64. Healthy aging is not only about your health and environment, but also takes into account well-being and purpose in society.

To plan for our extra 20 years, the WHO have initiated a Global Strategy and Action Plan on Ageing and Health in consultation with Member States and other partners. The plan has a number of priorities including being committed to healthy aging and establishing age-friendly environments with systems for long term care to align with needs of our aging population.

A major aim is to have all countries committed to fostering healthy aging by 2020, with action plans set in place to maximize functional ability, and that reach everybody. A global consultation meeting in Geneva this year will bring together a number of bodies, including representatives from the UN, scientific experts, national and international organisations as well as a number of departments within the WHO to discuss the implementation of the aging plan. The WHO envisions the outcome to be published in an updated report by January 2016.


It is clear that society needs to adapt on many levels. Individually, in communities, whole nations and all the way up to global politics. Only through combined efforts will the proposals set out in the report become a reality. Particularly intriguing is the notion of “age-friendly cities” and how this will be implemented worldwide.

Further, younger populations should set the ball rolling by engaging the older community in their activities and interests. As outlined in the report, an aging population comes with a lot of experience which potentially brings enormous opportunities. Working together with experienced people will also positively affect one's perception of the elderly.