During the next 5 years, for the first time in history, the number of people in the world aged 65 years and older will outnumber children aged 5 years or younger.  According to recent health research published in The Lancet medical journal, this is what we know:


1.  Population ageing is the biggest driver of a substantial international rise in the prevalence of chronic conditions, such as dementia, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes.

2.  Advances in medicine and socio-economic development mean that people are less likely to die from infections or diseases, so are more likely to be living with chronic conditions over a long period of time.

3.  An increase in the prevalence of chronic conditions will not only strain health systems but will also have economic implications.  Therefore, encouraging healthy lifestyles is essential. Only then can we try to ensure that, as we live longer, we will do so in good health.  The effective treatment of chronic diseases, reducing reliance on institutional care, appropriate health staff training, and the modification of policies to try to encourage older adults to remain part of the workforce for longer are also all necessary if we are to be prepared for an aging population.

4.  Increasingly, we need to think about the emotional wellbeing of the elderly as well as physical well-being.   In high-income countries subjective wellbeing has a typical U-shaped pattern with age, but it progressively decreases in older adults in the former Soviet Union, eastern Europe, and Latin America. Poor health status is significantly associated with negative emotional status and reduced life satisfaction.

5.  The scarcity of knowledge about leading health issues in older people has hampered an effective international response. This situation is particularly prominent in low-income and middle-income countries. However, a growing body of multidisciplinary international research from a range of low-income and middle-income countries supported by the US National Institute on Aging, such as WHO’s Study on global AGEing and adult health has begun gradually to increase our understanding of health and well-being determinants in the elderly population.


One thing is for sure – almost every health system in the world will need to quickly find and implement effective strategies if they are to respond effectively to the needs of the fast approaching increases in the elderly population.  A key challenge will be to avoid imposing a high financial burden on individuals and younger families in order to do so.  

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...