The Influencers: How Increasing Longevity Will Shape Our World
How Will the Longevity Boom Impact Our World?
Fortunately, people all over the world are living longer lives. But this comes with a downside, too, such as additional demands on our health system. What's being done to ensure we meet these future challenges?
By Regina Boyle Wheeler
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Want to live to a ripe old age? The chance that you and your children will live long lives is growing. In fact, a child born today could very well become a centenarian — someone who lives to be 100 years old. The world population is living longer than ever, thanks to advances in medicine, nutrition, and safety. But while global aging is a giant leap forward for mankind, longevity also presents economic, social, and health challenges, especially in already overcrowded countries.
Life expectancy worldwide made huge gains in the last century alone. In the United States, average life expectancy is now approaching 78 years of age. The youngest members of industrialized countries can look forward to living even longer. A recent Danish study found that half of the babies born in developed nations since 2000 will likely live to be centenarians. And this analysis of data from 30 countries showed that death rates among those older than 80 continue to fall, showing no signs of slowing. Future centenarians can also expect less disability than elderly people in previous generations, the study said.
A Look at the Longevity Boom
The Danish research is just one piece of evidence that global aging is rapidly occurring. Here are some aging projections from the United Nations:
- In 2045, the number of people 60 or older will be higher than the number of children worldwide for the first time in history.
- By 2050, the number of older people will double to 22 percent of the total population, with the most rapid increase occurring in developing countries.
- Among older people, the fastest growing group is people age 80 or over. Today, about one in seven older adults is over 80.
Will the World Be Overcrowded?
Some areas of the world likely will become more overcrowded, while others will stay about the same.
Over the next 40 years, the world’s population is expected to grow by two and a half billion people, to reach just over nine billion, according to the United Nations. Most of the population increase will take place in less developed countries and will be concentrated among the poorest people living in cities. This will likely produce more overcrowded and polluted urban slums, creating an urgent need for clean water and improvements in sanitation.
In rich and developing nations, people are living longer, but fewer babies are being born. So in these areas, the population is expected to show little change by 2050.
The Health Impact of Increased Longevity
There are wonderful upsides to an aging population: Most middle-aged and older adults will have living parents, and more children will know grandparents — even great-grandparents. Healthy elderly citizens can share their wealth of knowledge with younger generations, help with child care, and volunteer or hold jobs in their communities. But with people living longer, associated medical problems will place a heavy burden on health systems.
Here are some of the challenges of global aging:
- A rise in age-related chronic illness.Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases will cause more death and illness worldwide than infectious or parasitic diseases over the next few years. In developed nations, this shift has already happened. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are expected to almost double every 20 years, as life expectancy increases.
- Special challenges for less developed nations.Poorer countries will carry the double burden of caring for older people with chronic diseases, as well as dealing with continued high rates of infectious diseases.
- Increasing need for specialized health care workers.With millions more older people needing health care, specialized doctors, like geriatricians, will be necessary to help seniors worldwide. By 2030, it is estimated that 36,000 geriatricians will be needed in the United States alone. As of 2008, there were only about 7,000 practicing geriatricians.
- Increasing need for long-term care.The number of sick and frail elderly needing affordable nursing homes or assisted living centers will likely increase.
- Health care costs increase.As older people stop working and their health care needs increase, governments could be overwhelmed by unprecedented costs. In the United States, another baby boomer turns 60 every eight seconds. Medicare coverage, which seniors can tap at age 65, could be pushed to its breaking point. How to pay for the upcoming elder boom is a subject being debated in capitals around the world today.
How to Add Quality to Longevity
Living longer is terrific, but living pain-free and independently is what most people really want. To this end, states and communities will need to spend more resources on senior services. Health and wellness initiatives are needed to teach people how to better manage disease and avoid debilitating injuries from falls. Senior fitness programs can increase an individual’s strength and balance, while safe-driving programs can help seniors live independently as long as possible.
Medical advances in the future will likely increase longevity even more, but ultimately, your health is up to you. Avoiding or delaying the onset of chronic disease by eating healthy, exercising, and not smoking is a great way to start.
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