Each year on 7 April, we observe World Health Day to mark the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization in 1948. This year’s theme, “Good health adds life to years”, conveys an important message: promoting good health throughout life improves one’s chances of remaining healthy and productive in one’s later years.
In the middle of the last century, there were just 14 million people in the world aged 80 years or older. By 2050, there will be almost 400 million people in this age group, 100 million of them in China alone. Soon, for the first time in history, the world will have more adults aged 65 or older than children under five.
This enormous shift in the age of the world’s population is closely linked to economic and social development. Thanks primarily to global public health successes in improving childhood survival and adult health, people are living longer in most parts of the world. Many high-income countries are already facing rapidly ageing populations. In the coming decades, low- and middle-income countries will see equally dramatic increases.
Increased longevity is a cause for celebration and something to which we all aspire. Older people make many valuable contributions to society — as family members, as active participants in the workforce, and as volunteers within communities. The wisdom they have gained throughout their lives makes them a unique resource for society.
But more older people also means an increased demand on health care and social security systems. The greatest health threat for older people in all countries is now overwhelmingly from noncommunicable diseases. Heart disease and stroke are the biggest killers, and visual impairment and dementia the biggest causes of disability. In low-income countries, the incidence of these diseases among older people is two to three times greater than in high-income countries. This burden is carried not just by older people, but by their families and by society as a whole.
Many low- and middle-income countries have neither the infrastructure nor the resources to deal with existing needs, let alone to cope with the much greater demands expected in the future. The good news is that there are many practical and affordable solutions that governments can put in place to help their older citizens to lead healthy and active lives. In addition, countries that invest in healthy ageing can expect a significant social and economic return for the whole community.
On this World Health Day, I urge governments, civil society and the private sector to commit attention and resources to ensuring that people everywhere have the chance to grow older in good health.
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