In 1900, the average carpenter or factory worker in Europe lived a paltry 50 years. Today, life expectancy in the developed world has risen to around 80. While this is a triumph of social and scientific progress, it has also created a host of new challenges. Some people argue that societies in developing countries are buckling under the weight of ageing populations and overpopulated cities.

Latin America has more cause for celebration. It is reaping the benefits of having a young, increasingly urban population that has decades of social and economic productivity ahead. But it’s inevitable that it too will one day have an ageing population and conventional wisdom dictates that it is wise to save for this future. I agree that it’s good to save, but I would like to argue that Latin America should also invest in its societies and cities.

You see, we tend to see ageing as a time of decline and ageing populations as a burden for younger generations. This is a myopic view based on an outdated understanding of and approach to ageing. For me, if we invest in the right technologies and policies, ageing can be a period of new possibilities and ageing populations can be a rich source of social and economic value.

The Philips Centre for health and well-being has studied this topic. This think tank has found that people can age well if societies promote positive perceptions of ageing populations, promote personal health and well-being of the elderly, and implement public policies that include rather than exclude them.

Knowing that approximately 80% of deaths caused by non-communicable diseases (approx. 29 million) occur in low and middle income countries, I see that addressing access to healthcare and tackling the shortage of medical professionals is one crucial part of the necessary future investments. Extending healthcare into lower cost settings, including the home, will increase patients’ comfort and reduce the cost of care.

In the region, increased awareness and attention to healthcare could additionally reduce the transmission of tropical diseases and AIDS, and thereby minimize the future burden of care. The private sector should coordinate with governments not only to implement policies that contribute to improving healthcare, but also to create the conditions where elderly people can continue contributing to society.

In addition to investing in age-friendly societies, I would encourage Latin America to invest in the transformation of its cities. Right now, urbanization is radically – some would even say traumatically – altering the face of Latin American society. Sprawling cities and towns struggle with violence, environmental degradation and the loss of identity.

They don’t need to. I believe that it is possible for cities to be successful and liveable, for them to be places where people can thrive rather than survive. New thinking on cities indicates that they can be safe, sustainable environments that prioritize people’s needs, provided they are built on three pillars: authenticity, inclusion and resilience.

Authenticity is the ability to maintain the character, heritage and environment of a city, while respecting the need for sustainable development. Inclusion is about equal opportunities, social cohesion, economic integration and quality education. Resilience focuses on the adaptability and flexibility of a city as it deals with shocks and stress.

It is a lesson to be learned from the mixed experiences of Latin America’s young population. And while the continent saves for its future, it has a golden opportunity to reimagine its social institutions and the very fabric of its cities. This will allow the continent to not only prepare for a time when today’s youth are tomorrow’s elderly, but to turn that period into a new golden age.

Author: Henk de Jong is Chief Executive Officer of Philips Latin America and is based in Brazil, he will be participating at the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2013

Image: Elderly women are seen wearing tiaras during a beauty pageant in Guadalajara, Mexico REUTERS/Alejandro Acosta