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Older populations represent 'new normal'

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It's a fact that people are living longer around the world. But on World Health Day, the WHO warns that health and welfare systems lag behind the demographic trend - with potentially far-reaching consequences.

The world's population is rapidly ageing. In just a few years, there will be more people over 60 on Earth than children under five, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported Saturday, which is World Health Day.

"Many people thought that was just an issue for rich countries, such as Europe and Japan," said John Beard, Director of the WHO Department of Ageing and Life Course in Geneva. "But in fact the fastest ageing is now occurring in lower and middle-income countries. By 2050 there will be 2 billion older people on the planet, and 80 percent of them will be in what are currently low and middle-income countries."

Growing old isn't enough

The finding points to life expectancy and prosperity increasing around the world as old age is generally considered a side effect of socio-economic development. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said improvements in public health were a major factor behind longer life expectancies and used Chile as an example. Life expectancy in the South American country has increased by 49 years since 1910.

But now, Chan warned, the world must go a step further to make the additional years worth living. People all over the world have the right to grow old in good health, she said.

Same causes of death for all

Around the world, the elderly are dying of the same diseases. "Even in poor countries, the most common causes of death and disability are now non-infectious diseases," Beard said, referring to the latest studies on the causes of death. "It's no longer a matter of infectious diseases or gastrointestinal problems, but primarily cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia and respiratory infections."

Treatment of these health problems is usually simple and inexpensive. Many of the diseases can also be avoided by a consistently healthy lifestyle. But lack of adequate medical care means that nearly four times as many people die in developing countries of the so-called "diseases of civilization" as in rich countries.

Countries around the world need structures to deal with ageing populations No problem for Africa and Asia?

In industrialized countries, health insurance and pensions provide many old people with a relatively secure retirement. While many African and Asian countries, where the elderly are traditionally taken care of by their families, have not seen a need for institutional care for older people, Beard said the pace of societal change and ageing will likely overwhelm current care structures.

"This worked when a married couple had five or six children, but if suddenly two children have to pay for up to 10 seniors, it becomes difficult," he said, adding that supportive measures by governments are needed as well.

The elderly, women and foreigners as to the rescue

Not only in rich countries are governments thinking about reforming their pension systems, said Monika Queisser, head of social policy at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

"I believe that all governments around the world are slowly but surely adapting to demographic change," she said.

The industrialized countries were the first forced to act: "We see that pension reforms are taking place in all OECD countries; that the mobilization of women in the labor market, for example, has become an issue; that migration in the context of demographic change has also become an issue."

More work, fewer privileges

For the population in the predominantly rich OECD countries, the growing proportion of older people has already had drastic consequences. Employees will have to work longer before retiring and top up pension funds with their own insurance contributions.

Many developing countries are only at the beginning of this transformation. There are too few contributors, because the majority of the population works in the informal sector, such as small traders or domestic workers. Only a few privileged people benefited from pension systems, Queisser said.

"The systems that exist in those countries are often very generous," she added. "They were originally created with civil servants and public-sector employees in mind, with a relatively low retirement age."

This led to relatively expensive systems for very few people, but with the vast majority of the population having no access to social security benefits, Queisser said.

Sixty is the new 40

Even if rethinking has begun due to the demographic changes, the public perception of aging still lags far behind the reality. Beard said he believes it's time to change the perceptions of ​​growing old: "Statistically, someone who is 60 is considered old, but people in the West are now saying that 60 is no longer old. And over the course of the century, 60 will hopefully be considered middle-aged."

Chan puts it differently: "Being in the older age group is becoming the 'new normal."

Author: Claudia Witte / sgb

Editor: Sean Sinico



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