Every person – in every country in the world – should have the opportunity to live a long and healthy life. Yet, the environments in which we live can favour health or be harmful to it. Environments are highly influential on our behaviour and our exposure to health risks (for example air pollution, violence), our access to services (for example, health and social care) and the opportunities that ageing brings.
The number and proportion of people aged 60 years and older in the population is increasing. In 2019, the number of people aged 60 years and older was 1 billion. This number will increase to 1.4 billion by 2030 and 2.1 billion by 2050. This increase is occurring at an unprecedented pace and will accelerate in coming decades, particularly in developing countries.
This historically significant change in the global population requires adaptations to the way societies are structured across all sectors. For example, health and social care, transportation, housing and urban planning. Working to make the world more age friendly is an essential and urgent part of our changing demographics.
At the biological level, ageing results from the impact of the accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage over time. This leads to a gradual decrease in physical and mental capacity, a growing risk of disease, and ultimately, death. But these changes are neither linear nor consistent, and they are only loosely associated with a person’s age in years. While some 70 year-olds enjoy extremely good health and functioning, other 70 year-olds are frail and require significant help from others.
Beyond biological changes, ageing is also associated with other life transitions such as retirement, relocation to more appropriate housing, and the death of friends and partners. In developing a public-health response to ageing, it is important not just to consider approaches that ameliorate the losses associated with older age, but also those that may reinforce recovery, adaptation and psychosocial growth.
Ageing presents both challenges and opportunities. It will increase demand for primary health care and long-term care, require a larger and better trained workforce and intensify the need for physical and social environments to be made more age-friendly. Yet, these investments can enable the many contributions of older people – whether it be within their family, to their local community (e.g. as volunteers or within the formal or informal workforce) or to society more broadly.
Societies that adapt to this changing demographic and invest in Healthy Ageing can enable individuals to live both longer and healthier lives and for societies to reap the dividends.