Ageing population doesn’t have to be a ‘time bomb,’ say experts

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The productivity and potential of older people should not be underestimated. A woman with her grandson in China. Photo credit: UNFPA/William A. Ryan

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – The catastrophe predicted to result from the rapid ageing of Asian populations is far from inevitable, said experts at a regional conference being held this week in Thailand. Making changes to economic and health policies as well as mindsets can help countries head off disaster by minimizing the burdens and maximizing the contributions of older persons, noted attendees at the conference, which was organized by the HelpAge International with support from UNFPA and the European Union.

The numbers of older persons are rising sharply as life expectancies increase throughout the region. In countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mongolia and Viet Nam, the population over age 60 will triple by 2050, while falling birth rates will result in fewer young workers entering the labour force. The growing health care and social support costs associated with ageing will pose tremendous challenges.

But there are also great opportunities, speakers at the conference emphasized.

Older people today are healthier and more active than in the past, making them a huge resource that countries must not waste, according to HelpAge Asia Regional Director Eduardo Klein. “The next few years are the time to act” to realize this potential, he said.

Known solutions

Over 200 participants from 120 organizations in 29 Asian and Pacific countries are attending the conference to discuss how to respond to the demographic shift.

Philip O’Keefe, the World Bank’s lead economist on social protection and labour, said the risks associated with ageing are real but can be mitigated. “We always look at the costs, but the economic and business opportunities are enormous,” he noted.

Raising the age of retirement to keep pension systems solvent will be politically difficult, he acknowledged, but some countries have introduced incentive schemes and other measures to keep people working longer.

And contrary to popular perceptions, later retirement does not mean fewer jobs for the young; studies show that having more older people working can increase GDP and create more demand for young workers.

As populations age, health systems will have to contend with an increased burden of non-communicable diseases such as strokes and diabetes. But “age is not the dominant driver of rising health costs”, Mr. O’Keefe contended. Countries can manage expenses by emphasizing preventive primary care and reforming pharmaceutical purchasing policies, he said.

Wise investments can increase people’s health and productivity for years. Keizo Takemi, a member of the Japanese Parliament and Chairperson of the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development, pointed out that Japan’s introduction of universal health coverage led to more treatment for high blood pressure, and therefore fewer strokes.

Looking forward

As life expectancy increases, these issues will have to be dealt with around the world. Ageing-related issues need more attention in the global framework being developed to follow the Millennium Development Goals, said Lubna Baqi, UNFPA Deputy Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Conference attendees are also addressing flexible work in retirement, older farmers and demographic change, older volunteers as a potential resource including in emergencies and disaster preparedness, and intergenerational support at the household level.

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