Head of Policy and Influencing
An extraordinary thing is happening which will affect us all and the planet we live on. Yet it is not getting the attention it deserves. To borrow Al Gore’s phrase about climate change, global population ageing is the second global ‘inconvenient truth’. It is having a seismic impact, yet is not being taken seriously by policy makers at a global level. What makes this different from climate change, however, is that ageing is something to celebrate.
This is what happens when we get things right. Stronger economies, better education, improved healthcare lead to two important outcomes: increasing longevity and reduced birth rates. This is why by 2050, one fifth of the world’s population will be over the age of 60. This is why it is so important that the Sustainable Development Goals have included older people. We have to recognise and support the potential, as well as the needs and vulnerabilities, of people of all ages.
Even so, what population ageing means for the future of our societies and for planetary health is poorly understood. It is clear, however, that the actions we take will determine whether our ageing societies are an opportunity or a challenge.
A key starting point for how we respond to our ageing populations is recognising the inherent human dignity that any person has regardless of their age. Sadly, this is not the case where older people are concerned. Time and again, in all parts of the world, older people are subject to ageism and treated differently because of their age. Even where cultural traditions value and respect them, older women and men can be subject to the most horrific human rights abuses or considered less capable simply because of their age. This is why we need to clearly articulate and enshrine how to protect the human rights of people as they get older through a UN human rights convention for older people.
Unfortunately, living longer does not mean living healthier. Despite increased longevity, people are living longer unwell – especially women. This requires an approach to improving people’s health that recognises the impact of living with multiple chronic conditions, including dementia. The WHO’s World Report on Ageing and Health places emphasis on helping a person to maintain their functionality in later life and provides excellent guidance. In contrast, the WHO’s work on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) excludes people over the age of 70 in how it measures governments’ actions in this area.
What we do know about health in later life is that a person’s health outcomes can be changed for better or for worse, with enormous consequences for them and the people around them. We know that women and men who live healthier lives in older age are better able to contribute to their families and society as a whole. We also know that the impact of ill health can leave them vulnerable and isolated in society, and can drive their families further into poverty. Providing appropriate healthcare in later life is more than a social justice issue, it is about taking into account older people’s impact on planetary health, improving the economy and realising people’s full potential throughout their life course.
In the 21st century, it is inconceivable that any response to planetary health does not take into account this increasing proportion of our lives. The Second Inconvenient Truth of population ageing requires a global response that makes healthy ageing a priority for all of us and for the health of our planet.