Ageing

Fact sheet
26 July 2014

Key facts

  • The world is ageing rapidly, as a result of both longer life expectancy and declining fertility rates.
  • In 2012, more than 255 million people in the World Health Organization (WHO) Western Pacific Region were aged 60 years and above, accounting for 11% of the total population. Over 33 million people in the Region were aged 80 years and above, accounting for almost 2% of the total population.
  • By 2025, an estimated 87% of all people aged 60 years and above will live in low- and middle-income countries. Globally and in the Western Pacific Region, the proportion of people aged 60 years and above is growing faster than any other age group. The fastest growth in this age group is taking place in the low- and middle-income countries of the Region.
  • It took more than 50 years for Australia and New Zealand to double the proportion of their people aged 60 years and above from 7% to 14% of the total population. Low- and middle-income countries in the Western Pacific Region are faced with a much shorter timeframe to prepare for the challenges posed by their ageing populations—in some cases, only 20 years.
  • Ageing populations also represent an opportunity for societies. If older people retain their health and live in environments that promote their active participation, their experience, skills and wisdom will continue to remain a resource for societies.
  • In response to these trends, the Sixty-fourth WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific in October 2013 endorsed the Regional Framework for action on ageing and health in the Western Pacific (2014–2019) to guide and catalyse action on ageing and health in countries and areas of the Region.

Overview

The challenges of an ageing population include a strain on the pension and social security systems, and the increasing demand for health care. However, population ageing also represents an opportunity for societies. Older people can be resources for societies as long as they are empowered to remain healthy and active.

In the Western Pacific Region, the proportion of people aged 60 years and above is growing faster than any other age group. Some countries have already been confronted with population ageing and are finding ways to meets the health needs of their older people in an affordable, accessible and equitable manner. In Japan, for example, the population aged 60 years and above exceeded the population younger than 14 years in 1991. Other countries are facing a particularly narrow window of time to prepare for population ageing. The speed of population ageing is likely to be especially rapid in low- and middle-income countries of the Western Pacific Region, such as China, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Lao People’s Democratic Republic. All countries and areas in the Western Pacific Region are exploring ways to maximize the health and functional capacity of older people, and their social participation and security in equity-enhancing, gender-responsive and human rights-based ways.

Inequities that influence well-being in older age

Inequities experienced earlier in life such as in access to education, employment and health care, as well as those based on gender and race, contribute to lack of well-being in old age. At the same time, older age often exacerbates pre-existing inequities based on race, ethnicity or gender. For instance, people from low-income households, due to low levels of education and training, often earn a living through manual labour. As their ability to perform such work declines, finding work becomes harder, but they cannot afford to stop working. They may then take up any work available, at wages that may not meet even their basic needs.

"Feminization" of ageing

Data show that, on average, women in the Western Pacific Region live longer than men. Combined with the trend that men marry younger women, women are more likely to outlive their partners and spend their old age as widows. This “feminization” of ageing leaves many women alone in old age or caring for their older partners, which creates challenges as their health declines. Traditional practices relating to widowhood may result in violence and abuse of older women, posing a threat to their health and well-being. Older women living alone may not know where or how to negotiate access to health care and welfare services on their own. Further, while women typically live longer, they are more likely than men to experience disadvantages in access to education, food, meaningful work, health care and social security, and political autonomy over their lives. These cumulative disadvantages mean that older women are more likely than older men to be poor and to face disabilities and social disadvantage.

A human rights-based approach

Health is a basic human right for all, including older people. Realization of the right to health requires an environment that enables everyone to be as healthy as possible. Phenomena such as ageist attitudes, neglect, abuse and violence against older people in various forms contribute to the violation of their right to health. Leadership and strong actions are needed to move away from negative images of ageing to the view that older people are valuable assets for their families, communities and society as a whole.

An agenda for action

Ageing and health are complex, cross-cutting matters that require action across different teams, institutions and sectors. Vastly increased life expectancy is having an impact on every aspect of life, including national health systems. The health sector, in partnership with other sectors, has a crucial responsibility to foster age-friendly environments, as well as to promote healthy ageing across the life course and prevent diseases among older people. Crucially, health systems will need to be reoriented to respond to the needs of older people, including building a continuum of care, a health workforce with appropriate skills, access to essential medicines and health technologies, and a strengthened evidence base on the health dimensions of these demographic changes.

WHO Response

Responding to the public health challenges posed by population ageing, the Sixty-fourth WHO Regional Committee Meeting in October 2013 endorsed the Regional Framework for action on ageing and health in the Western Pacific (2014–2019) to guide and catalyse action on ageing and health in countries and areas of the Region. In accordance with United Nations principles and WHO mandates, the Framework highlights key issues and suggests actions around four critical action pillars:

  • Action pillar 1: Foster age-friendly environments through action across sectors.
  • Action pillar 2: Promote healthy ageing across the life-course and prevent functional decline and disease among older people.
  • Action pillar 3: Reorient health systems to respond to the needs of older people.
  • Action pillar 4: Strengthen the evidence base on ageing and health.

The WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific is committed to collaborating with Member States, forging partnerships, and strengthening political commitment and advocacy to foster accelerated action on ageing and health.

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