Poorer countries must adapt to meet health needs of elderly.
As populations age rapidly in the global south, the World Health Organization says infrastructure must be put in place to address the needs of this older population
A Kenyan senior citizen leans on his cane in a Nairobi street. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Health systems, particularly in poorer countries, need to adapt to meet the chronic care needs of older people, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.
The WHO points out that developing countries will have less time than wealthy nations to adapt to the challenges of an ageing population – generally defined as people over 60.
While it took more than 100 years for the share of France's population aged 65 or older to increase from 7% to 14%, countries such as Brazil, China and Thailand will experience the same demographic change in just over 20 years.
By 2050, 80% of older people will live in low- and middle-income countries. The trend is also evident for the oldest age groups.
The main health challenges for older people are non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, visual impairment, hearing loss and dementia, but current health systems in poorer countries are not designed to meet such chronic care needs.
While heart disease and stroke are the biggest causes of years of life lost, and high blood pressure is a key treatable risk factor for these diseases, only between 4% and 14% of older people were receiving effective anti-hypertensive treatment.
Dementia is set to become a major problem for poor countries as well.
Improvements in health can be achieved with relatively cheap and simple interventions, such as the effective management of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, and the promotion of healthy lifestyles, in particular regular physical activity.
"Yet in most countries these interventions are not available to large sections of adult populations. The failure of national governments and international agencies to prioritize these cheap and effective treatments represents a missed opportunity to reduce mortality, illness and disability," they say.
They argue that increased human longevity "should be a cause for celebration" and provide opportunities to rethink health policy for the benefit of all – old and young.
The WHO points out the importance of being physically active, eating a healthy diet, avoiding the harmful use of alcohol and not smoking in early life to stave off problems later, and it urges countries to adopt preventive strategies, such as taxes on tobacco and alcohol, smoke-free workplaces and public places, reduced salt intake in food and increasing public awareness on diet and physical activity.