Active and Healthy Ageing

News release

World Health Day, 07 April 1999

With the world's population significantly increasing, the World Health Organization (WHO) is urging governments to promote active and healthy ageing to maintain well-being and quality of life in older age.

The current global figure of 580 million people aged 60 years and over is expected to rise to 1 billion by 2020, 75% of whom will be in developing countries. With the dramatic rise in the number of older people, population ageing will be one of the most important health, social and economic challenges to face future generations. For example, while it has taken France 115 years for the proportion of older people to double from 7% to 14%, it will take China only 27 years to achieve the same increase, between 2000 and 2027.

Improved social and economic climates, coupled with technological advances in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, have ushered in the ageing of populations worldwide. However, WHO warns that without adequate programmes or policies to promote and protect the welfare of older persons in society, governments will find it difficult to deal with ageing populations in the future.

There is a need to set aside the negative stereotypes associated with old age and infuse fresh and positive approaches to ageing if we are to improve the plight of older persons. The vast majority of older people remain physically fit well into later life, dispelling the myth that older people are frail. It is the minority of old people, mostly the very old, who become disabled to the point that they need care and assistance with the activities of daily living. Older people are also able to make substantial contributions to society such as in caring for children, thus belying the notion that older people have nothing to contribute.

Dedicating this year's World Health Day, celebrated every 7th of April, to the growing older population, WHO is calling on Member States to recognize and acknowledge older people as valuable resources in development. Its theme, "Active ageing", is a rallying call for healthy, meaningful and productive lives for older people.

"A healthy childhood and adulthood is one of the best ways to ensure a healthy old age", said Dr Shigeru Omi, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, as he called on policy-makers, health workers and community activists to help promote active ageing. "Our goal is not only to add years to life, but to add quality to those years", he emphasized.

The United Nations has also designated 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons to encourage people of all ages to take steps to ensure greater health and well-being in the later years for themselves and for their communities. Ageing is not an affliction but part of a life process with great opportunities to make use of resources acquired over the life course.

WHO stresses the importance of adopting healthy lifestyles. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, inadequate nutrition or obesity greatly add to the likelihood of disease and disability. Although an individual may not have control over early life experiences and other factors that indirectly affect health, actions taken during adulthood greatly affect health in later years. In addition to policy decisions to encourage health, active ageing must also include the creation of supportive social and environmental conditions throughout life.

The Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, the governing body of WHO in the Region, is encouraging Member States to review their current policies and the development and provision of health services for older persons, especially in the light of emerging concerns. These include the rise in nuclear families, rapid urbanization and gender imbalance in the older segment of the population.

"The rights of individuals must be maintained and protected as they age", said Dr Omi. "Governments should ensure full access to comprehensive health services by older persons. Health services must take into account the high proportion of women among the older population. The positive contribution of older persons to development and their potential as a resource for their families, communities and society must also be recognized".

The Regional Committee passed a resolution in September 1998 urging Member States to continue to give due attention to the needs of older persons for health and health care. It also urged Member States to plan and implement activities to mark the International Year of Older Persons. In response, Member States are taking positive measures to improve the well-being and quality of life of older people. For example in Singapore, a series of seminars and conferences have been lined up, including an international conference with special focus on older women in Asia. Samoa has launched "Promote Public Awareness" which includes panel discussions on television and radio. Other activities involve the establishment of retirement preparation programmes and an older adult education centre as well as the development and strengthening of care giving systems for the aged. China will conduct a series of a health education and health promotion activities as well as set up health service system for community elders. In Mongolia, a press conference will be held on 7 April with the participation of the President of Mongolia, the Minister of Health and Social Welfare and the WHO Representative. Other activities in Mongolia include the holding of special clinics, with counselling, for older persons as well as discussions at secondary schools in Ulaanbaatar on community and family care for the elderly.

For more information, contact Mr Charles Raby, Public Information Officer at (632) 528 9983 or email: rabyc@wpro.who.int

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