Opening remarks by Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific at the 20th International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics

23 June 2013

1. Distinguished participants, honourable guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

2. I am honoured to speak at this opening session of the 20th World Congress of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics.

Ageing and health is a very important issue in the WHO Western Pacific Region.

I commend the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics for its work and vast experience on ageing and health.

3. I am pleased that the 20th World Congress is meeting in Seoul. The Republic of Korea is one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.

And it is an ageing-friendly society, with a strong national policy on ageing. We have much to learn from countries such as the Republic of Korea.

I also wish to commend the Government of the Republic of Korea for hosting this Congress. This is an excellent opportunity to exchange views and discuss ideas with partners from around the world.

4. I have three important messages today. First, population ageing is actually good news.

5. Second, the window of time for action is short, so we must act now.

6. And third, we already know much about what we need to do on ageing and health.

7. Let us consider my first message — that population ageing is actually good news.

8. We must reject the notion that population ageing is a problem —something that will incur huge costs for governments, communities and families.

I encourage everyone to view population ageing as a positive outcome — as an opportunity.

9. People are now living longer than ever before — and that’s a success story for public health.

Member States in our Region have made great strides in preventing and managing chronic diseases and in promoting healthy behaviours. They have expanded universal health coverage and strengthened health systems.

Population ageing is the positive result of these successes.

10. Of course, we recognize that an ageing population presents challenges. But it also provides an abundant and valuable resource — our older people.

Public and media attention too often focuses only on the challenges of ageing. There are fears that an ageing population will increase spending on health and welfare.

These concerns are not entirely misplaced. We need advice from those of you who are experts in health economics and financing and in social security and welfare to identify new and sustainable options.

If we tackle ageing and health properly, older people will continue to remain a vital resource in all of our communities.

11. Indeed, in Asian societies, we have a tradition of honouring the wisdom and experience of our elders.

12. We all recognize that the economic and political influence of older people is on the rise. If we ensure that older people can retain their health and live in environments that promote their active participation, their experience, skills and wisdom will continue to be a great resource in their communities.

13. My second message is that the window of time for action is short — so we must act now.

14. Population ageing is both inevitable and predictable. The modern world is ageing at an unprecedented rate. Globally and in the Region, the proportion of the population above 60 is growing faster than any other age group.

In 2010, there were more than 235 million people aged 60 years and above in the Western Pacific Region, accounting for over 13% of the population. This proportion is expected to almost double between 1995 and 2025.

15. The Western Pacific Region is a vast and diverse Region. We have the most “silver” country in the world — Japan. A tipping point was reached in Japan more than 20 years ago when the population aged 60 years and older first exceeded the population younger than 14 years.

16. But our Region also has countries in which the majority of the population is young, such as Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. These countries have time to prepare for the inevitable greying of their populations.

17. But they don’t have that much time.

In the past, it took up to a century for the proportion of older people in a country to double. Australia and New Zealand took more than 50 years to double their share of people aged 60 years and older

18. Now countries might double the share of their older population in just a generation. For example, here in the Republic of Korea, the number of people aged 60 years and above is projected to double from about 16% in 2010 to nearly 31% in 2030 — a very dramatic change in only 20 years.

19. The speed of population ageing is expected to be especially rapid in low- and middle-income countries in the Region. Therefore, they face a much shorter time frame to prepare.

20. People live longer — but how can we ensure that longer lives are also healthier lives?

21. This question brings me to my third message: We already know much about what we need to do.

Ageing and health is not a new issue. Many of you have been working in this field for decades — leading the quest to find answers and solutions

It is critically important for every country to have a comprehensive national policy that responds to the ageing of its population. WHO is committed to supporting Member States in developing such policies.

22. These policies need to address several key areas, including health, employment, social security, the environment and housing. I would like to highlight four areas of action in health that WHO views as essential:

23. First, we need to build age-friendly environments through intersectoral action. Such environments support the health and well-being of older people and empower them to live active and productive lives. This can be achieved, for example, by policies that ensure open spaces for physical activity or the availability of affordable and nutritious foods.

24. We increasingly hear calls for intersectoral action in health. Ageing and health is one area where we need to work more closely with other sectors, such as transport, housing, social security and finance. This can ensure that we create truly supportive and age-friendly environments.

25. One example of how WHO is supporting this work is the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities that aims to bring together cities and communities that share a commitment to become more age friendly.

26. A second approach is to promote healthy ageing across the life-course and prevent diseases among older people.

27. Older people comprise a large share of those with noncommunicable diseases. In the Western Pacific Region, these diseases — which are preventable — are the leading causes of disability, morbidity and mortality.

28. WHO advocates a life-course approach to healthy ageing. We recognize that good health in older age depends largely on choices made early in life — choices such exercising, eating healthy and not smoking — that minimize risk factors for ill health.

29. Thirdly, we must promote universal health coverage through age-friendly health systems. What does this mean?

30. It means that population ageing must be incorporated into national health plans and policies. And, in turn, health must be featured in national plans on ageing.

31. It also means that we need to strengthen age-friendly primary health care. Health systems need to be reoriented to better respond to the specific health needs of older people, including specialist care.

32. We need to develop integrated health service delivery models that can provide a continuum of care for older people — from promotion and prevention to treatment, rehabilitation, palliation and end-of-life care.

33. Population ageing is also going to affect health workforce planning. Member States will face increasing demands for care by people such as you — specialists in gerontology and geriatrics.

34. We will also need general health workers with the skills to respond to the health needs of older people.

35. We need to ensure the appropriate balance between care in informal settings — such as homes — and in formal health-care services. We need to support informal workers, communities and families , with the participation of older people themselves.

36. Technology and innovation are central themes of this conference. New technologies touch the lives of older people in many ways, in particular, innovation in medical and assistive devices such as hearing aids or wheelchairs is a very promising area.

But it’s also one with considerable challenges. We must encourage the adaptation and transfer of innovative solutions in an equitable manner.

37. Another challenge is the strains that population ageing places on health insurance and social security systems. We need to refocus these systems and expand their coverage to equitably meet older people’s health care costs .

38. Older people, like others, face social and economic inequities. For example, women may live longer, but in old age they typically have a poorer quality of life than men.

Inequities women face in education and opportunity make them more likely to be poor in older age. As a result, responses to population ageing need to be gender sensitive.

39. The fourth area of action is the need to strengthen the evidence base on ageing.

40. Reliable information is key to sound policy-making. Data are lacking about the health status and needs of older people, their access to services and the quality of care they receive.

41. Besides, research and analysis on ageing will need a focus on equity. Older people are not all the same. Breaking down and analysing information by factors such as age, sex, income, and rural or urban location will help us understand and meet the health needs of everyone.

42. For better evidence to be used in policymaking, we must put it in the hands of decision-makers and policy-makers.

43. Our agenda is complex and challenging. There is no “magic bullet”. But there is growing awareness and willingness by governments and societies to address population ageing.

44. Moving forward will require political commitment, advocacy and strengthened partnerships.

45. Ageing and health cannot be tackled by one institution or one team. This critically important issue requires contributions from governments, nongovernmental partners and older people themselves. WHO is committed to using our convening power to bring together various partners on ageing and health.

46. We are seeing renewed global and regional action on ageing and health. Three of the six WHO regions already have endorsed strategies on ageing and health. These strategies serve as important catalysts for action in Member States.

47. In our Region, we have developed a Framework for Action on Ageing and Health. It lays out the four critical areas of action I have just outlined. The issue of ageing and health is on the agenda of the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific — which is our governing body — at its sixty-fourth session in Manila, Philippines, in October 2013.

48. Your advice and collaboration will be critical as we move forward. We need your knowledge and your passion. We look forward to working with you and with all of our partners — old and new — in finding innovative approaches and solutions.

49. I hope you agree with me when I say that population ageing is not a problem.

It is an opportunity.

If we act now, our older people will enjoy healthier and more fulfilling lives — and societies will benefit from the socioeconomic impact of good policies and actions.

50. We also need to encourage another change — a change in the way we think about older people. We need to challenge old stereotypes and reject negative images.

51. Investing in the health of older people has numerous benefits. We need to look beyond longer lives and do more to add life to years. Good health adds life to years.

52. This World Congress is a welcome step in that direction.

53. It has been a pleasure to speak to you today. I would like to conclude by showing a brief video on ageing and health produced by WHO for World Health Day last year.

World Health Day is celebrated each year to mark the founding of WHO in 1948 and highlight a priority health issue.

Ageing and health is such a priority health issue for WHO and our Member States.

54. Thank you.