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WHO: World Must Prepare for Aging Population

FILE - Guadalupe Portillo, who is 102, speaks during an interview in her Los Angeles home.
FILE - Guadalupe Portillo, who is 102, speaks during an interview in her Los Angeles home.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says governments must prepare now to deal with an increasingly aging world. Otherwise, it warns the growing burden of chronic disease will seriously affect the quality of life of older people and create economic and other hardships for national health systems. These findings appear in a new series on health and aging published in the British journal, The Lancet.

Everywhere in the world people are living longer. But as people age, they are saddled with chronic illnesses and diminished wellbeing that affects their quality of life and creates a burden on society.

The latest statistics show by 2050, an estimated two billion people will be aged 60 and older, more than double the 841 million today.

The World Health Organization notes 80 percent of these older people will be living in low and middle-income countries, not in wealthy countries.

It says the increase in longevity in affluent countries is largely due to the decline in deaths from cardiovascular disease resulting from simple, cost-effective strategies to reduce tobacco use and high blood pressure.

WHO Senior Policy and Strategy Adviser in the Department of Aging and Life Course, Islene Araujo, says life expectancy in Africa now is 60 years. She says cardiovascular diseases, that is stroke and infarctus, are responsible for killing most older people.

She says stroke survivors often become disabled, burdening society.

“Cardiovascular disease can be prevented with one simple action, for example control of hypertension. Most of the people in this region in Africa - 10 percent may have a diagnosis of hypertension, like for example South Africa, and 80 percent do not get treatment for hypertension. So, one single intervention like treatment for hypertension can save many lives. It can also avoid disability," said Araujo.

Besides heart disease and stroke, other major illnesses of aging include cancers, chronic lung disease, sensory disorders, vision problems, mental and neurological disorders. Authors of the WHO reports say dementia and Alzheimer's are the biggest cause of dependency in richer countries. Although people are living longer, evidence shows they are not necessarily healthier than before.

WHO Department of Health Statistics and Information Systems coordinator and report author Somnath Chatterji tells VOA there are low-cost strategies that can help older people live healthier lives. For example, he says reducing salt intake can have a big impact on health.

“Secondly, the early detection of illnesses. You know, we need to train primary care workers to be able to identify things like hypertension, for example again relatively early, diabetes relatively early and treat those conditions before they become much more expensive to treat. Thirdly, there are strategies to extend these health care services using current technologies. So, one could use mobile technologies to actually improve the delivery of these services," said Chatterji.

The report's authors suggest changing policies to encourage older adults to remain part of the workforce beyond retirement age. They also agree with the WHO's call for universal health care to prevent older people from slipping into poverty to pay for health services.

They also say people of all ages should not smoke, do more physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption and practice good nutrition, which will pay good health dividends later in life.