Addressing ageing and health challenge in the Western Pacific Region

News release

WHO/C. Doan

The World Health Organization (WHO) and its Member States are working together to develop plans and strategies to address the looming health challenge of population ageing in the Asia Pacific region.

“This is an important and urgent issue for our Region,” declared Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “Although current trends in population ageing are unprecedented in human history, they are still predictable.”

Ageing and health is a major focus for the sixty-fourth session of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, being held on 21−25 October in Manila, the Philippines. The centrepiece of the discussion is the draft Regional Framework for Action on Ageing and Health in the Western Pacific, a document that will guide WHO and Member States on policy and action for the coming six years.

In fact, population ageing is good news. People now live longer because of the significant progress Member States have made through disease prevention and health promotion. From 1990 to 2009, the mean life expectancy in the Region rose to 75 years from 69 years.

At the same time, ageing and health is a complex issue with unique challenges. WHO advocates four pillars of action to address these challenges:

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

The Western Pacific is a Region of stark contrasts when it comes to ageing. Japan has the highest proportion of older people in the world. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, have relatively young populations, but they will age at an even faster rate than populations in developed countries. This diversity requires policy-makers to share experiences and lessons that integrate regional, national and community approaches.

The aim is to put in place systems more attuned to the health conditions of older people. For instance, older people account for the largest share of noncommunicable diseases and are more likely to have some form of disability, such as impaired vision—approximately 44% of older people in the Region have experienced some vision loss. Dementia is another growing concern for the elderly—there are some 7.7 million new cases globally each year and societies often mistake the initial symptoms for so-called “normal” signs of ageing. Health systems need to reorient themselves to deliver services older people need, such as gerontology and palliative care.

Population ageing risks straining health systems, as more resources are spent on health and welfare, chiefly from the increased use of health services, especially for treating chronic conditions. Moreover, a significant proportion of older people are poor and find services unaffordable, especially in less developed countries. There are also major concerns relating to ensuring appropriate and respectful treatment towards older people and combating age-based discrimination, such as elder abuse and social exclusion.

WHO hopes to use the experience of older people’s associations in countries such as Cambodia as a template for other communities to follow. WHO is also keen to promote new information and appropriate technologies to facilitate the needed services for social inclusion of older people.

A related challenge is the limited evidence base on the impact of ageing on health and society in the Region. More detailed information on healthy ageing across the life-course and the health needs of older people forms the basis for devising appropriate policies and adapting health systems to respond to the challenge of population ageing. WHO has produced the Knowledge Translation Framework in Ageing and Health (2012) to assist Member States with research, while the Study on global Ageing and adult health (SAGE) compiles trends on ageing and health in several countries, including China.

“We recognize that ageing and health cannot be tackled by one institution or one team. It requires input and ideas from governments, nongovernmental partners and older people themselves,” Dr Shin said. This involves consultation and collaboration with the ministries of health and other partners, such as the ministries of labour, housing, transport and urban development, as well as with communities and older people themselves. WHO's Centre for Health Development in Kobe, Japan, produces research and policy recommendations focusing on urban health and ageing.

On World Health Day 2012, WHO put population ageing on the agenda by adopting the slogan, “Good health adds life to years”, to underscore the importance of healthy ageing across the life-course. WHO hopes Member States and researchers will disseminate and share their work on ageing-related issues through regional initiatives, such as WHO’s Asia Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Policies.

Reflecting on the expertise and willingness of Member States and WHO to engage on this issue, Dr Shin said he is optimistic for the role of older people in the Region. “With the right policies and actions, older people can remain vital resources in all of our communities.”

For further information or to request for an interview, please contact:

Mr Ruel E. Serrano
Assistant, Public Information Office
Telephone.: +632 528 9993