Ageing and Health

By: Henry Smith

Selection_004People worldwide are living longer. Today, for the first time in history, most people can expect to live into their sixties and beyond. By 2050, the world’s population aged 60 years and older is expected to total 2 billion, up from 900 million in 2015. Today, 125 million people are aged 80 years or older. By 2050, there will be almost this many (120 million) living in China alone, and 434 million people in this age group worldwide. By 2050, 80% of all older people will live in low- and middle-income countries.

The pace of population ageing around the world is also increasing dramatically. France had almost 150 years to adapt to a change from 10% to 20% in the proportion of the population that was older than 60 years. However, places such as Brazil, China and India will have slightly more than 20 years to make the same adaptation.

While this shift in distribution of a country’s population towards older ages – known as population ageing – started in high-income countries (for example in Japan 30% of the population are already over 60 years old), it is now low- and middle- income countries that are experiencing the greatest change. By the middle of the century many countries, e.g., Chile, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation will have a similar proportion of older people to Japan.

A longer life brings with it opportunities, not only for older people and their families, but also for societies as a whole. Additional years provide the chance to pursue new activities such as further education, a new career or pursuing a long neglected passion. Older people also contribute in many ways to their families and communities. Yet the extent of these opportunities and contributions depends heavily on one factor: health.

There is, however, little evidence to suggest that older people today are experiencing their later years in better health than their parents. While rates of severe disability have declined in high-income countries over the past 30 years, there have been no significant change in mild to moderate disability over the same period.

If people can experience these extra years of life in good health and if they live in a supportive environment, their ability to do the things they value will be little different from that of a younger person. If these added years are dominated by declines in physical and mental capacity, the implications for older people and for society are more negative.

Ageing explained

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.

Common health conditions associated with ageing

Common conditions in older age include hearing loss, cataracts and refractive errors, back and neck pain and osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, depression, and dementia. Furthermore, as people age, they are more likely to experience several conditions at the same time.

Older age is also characterized by the emergence of several complex health states that tend to occur only later in life and that do not fall into discrete disease categories. These are commonly called geriatric syndromes. They are often the consequence of multiple underlying factors and include frailty, urinary incontinence, falls, delirium and pressure ulcers.

Geriatric syndromes appear to be better predictors of death than the presence or number of specific diseases. Yet outside of countries that have developed geriatric medicine as a specialty, they are often overlooked in traditionally structured health services and in epidemiological research.

Factors influencing Healthy Ageing

Although some of the variations in older people’s health are genetic, much is due to people’s physical and social environments – including their homes, neighbourhoods, and communities, as well as their personal characteristics – such as their sex, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

These factors start to influence the ageing process at an early stage. The environments that people live in as children – or even as developing foetuses – combined with their personal characteristics, have long-term effects on how they age.

Environments also have an important influence on the development and maintenance of healthy behaviours. Maintaining healthy behaviours throughout life, particularly eating a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and refraining from tobacco use all contribute to reducing the risk of non-communicable diseases and improving physical and mental capacity.

Behaviours also remain important in older age. Strength training to maintain muscle mass and good nutrition can both help to preserve cognitive function, delay care dependency, and reverse frailty.

Supportive environments enable people to do what is important to them, despite losses in capacity. The availability of safe and accessible public buildings and transport, and environments that are easy to walk around are examples of supportive environments.

Challenges in responding to population ageing

Diversity in older age

There is no ‘typical’ older person. Some 80 year-olds have physical and mental capacities similar to many 20 year-olds. Other people experience significant declines in physical and mental capacities at much younger ages. A comprehensive public health response must address this wide range of older people’s experiences and needs.

Health inequities

The diversity seen in older age is not random. A large part arises from people’s physical and social environments and the impact of these environments on their opportunities and health behaviour. The relationship we have with our environments is skewed by personal characteristics such as the family we were born into, our sex and our ethnicity, leading to inequalities in health. A significant proportion of the diversity in older age is due to the cumulative impact of these health inequities across the life course. Public health policy must be crafted to reduce, rather than reinforce, these inequities.

Outdated and ageist stereotypes

Older people are often assumed to be frail or dependent, and a burden to society. Public health, and society as a whole, need to address these and other ageist attitudes, which can lead to discrimination, affect the way policies are developed and the opportunities older people have to experience Healthy Aging.