World Population Grows Older, but at a Cost

Global Population Aging Faster Than Ever, Posing Financial and Social Challenges

From the WebMD Archives

July 22, 2009 -- The number of people 65 and older is exploding around the world, and these elderly folks will outnumber children under 5 for the first time ever within the next decade, says a new report that raises serious questions about financing health care.

The 200-page study, called “An Aging World: 2008,” was commissioned by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, and produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among its findings:

  • Japan is the world’s oldest country, with 21% aged 65 and over. The U.S. has an older population of 13%, but this will increase because it has more people born after World War II, the so-called baby boomers, who will start to hit 65 after 2010. The country with the largest older population is China.
  • 20% of women 40-44 in the United States had no biologic children in 2006. This raises concerns about their health care as they age because offspring normally play an important role in taking care of elderly parents.
  • Europe is the grayest of the continents, with 23 of the 25 oldest countries.
  • What demographers call the “oldest old” -- those 80 and over -- is the fastest growing proportion of the total population in many countries.
  • Developed countries have relatively high proportions of people 65 and older, but the most rapid increases are in the developing world.

Although it’s good that people are living longer because of improvements in general health care, the report says, it costs more to take care of the elderly.

“Global aging is challenging the social and economic nature of the planet and presenting difficult challenges,” NIA researcher Richard Suzman says in a news release.

The report says that in one sense, global aging represents a triumph of medical, social, and economic advances, but in another, “produces myriad challenges to social insurance and pension schemes, health care systems, and existing models of social support.”

And it also affects economic growth and disease patterns and prevalence. For example, in coming years the loss of health and life will be greater from non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems, than from infectious and parasitic illnesses.


Other findings:

  • Some populations are getting smaller. Russia’s population is expected to shrink by 24 million between 2008 and 2040. This is due in part to lower birth rates and increases in male mortality caused by a breakdown in medical care.
  • Life expectancy in France at birth is 80.9 years, compared with 78.1 in the U.S. In Zimbabwe, life expectancy at birth is only 39.7 and is low in many HIV/AIDS-ravaged countries.
  • China has 106.1 million people 65 and older, followed by India with 59.6 million. The U.S. has 38.7 million people in that age range.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 22, 2009



News release, U.S. Census Bureau.

U.S. Census Bureau: "An Aging World: 2008."

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