World Health Day is celebrated around the world on 7 April each year. It is a time to raise awareness of the centrality of health to the attainment of sustainable development, and to rejoice in the advances we have made in steadily increasing the longevity and quality of life for so many. But it is also a time to question how we can do better.
The focus of recent work led by the World Economic Forum on ageing has led to a significant shift. To date, most equate ageing with a period of struggle and despair – a time when health deteriorates and activities required for daily living become difficult for all.
However, as stated by Standard & Poor’s, “no other force is likely to shape the future of national economic, health, public finances and policy-making as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is ageing.” On the ground, we are seeing populations achieve unthinkable levels of longevity – with 12% of the total global population today being 60 and over – in cities as diverse as Hong Kong, Tokyo, New York, Copenhagen, Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg. With that longevity, most maintain and demand high levels of independence and access to the full range of opportunities cities bring in terms of cultural, environmental, employment and activity-related services.
I was struck by many design features being built into the infrastructure of Hong Kong for example, allowing people to enjoy open spaces into their advanced years; to walk without fear of having to dash across the road or slip on uneven surfaces; and to have easy access to health services. This is driven by public authorities and builds on many World Health Organization (WHO) led age-friendly city features.
The private sector is also reacting and sees opportunity in providing age-friendly products and services to a burgeoning population. In the US alone, the 60-plus age group represents $7 trillion, making it the third-largest global economy. As markets respond to the reality of longevity, they are finding opportunities in sectors as diverse as food and nutrition; mobility devices; sensors and software for older people that interact with the environment; yoga and meditation; leisure equipment and clothing; arts and culture; and travel.
Furthermore, in the US, 23% of new entrepreneurs in 2011-2012 were aged 55-64, and a recent survey found that only 20% of those nearing retirement age want to retire completely.
A colleague, Linda Fried – Dean of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and a noted expert on ageing – once remarked that older people are the only natural resource that is increasing. Our challenge is to take full advantage of the cumulative wisdom, financial clout and demand for better-adapted products and services that longevity brings us. As we succeed, economies will reap a major economic dividend from their mature populations.
Let’s ensure that, as we celebrate World Health Day this year, we are inclusive of people of all ages and look to our older friends and family with pride and support.
Author: Derek Yach is Executive Director of The Vitality Institute, USA
Image: A woman shields herself from the sun with an umbrella at a park in Lisbon June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro