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Elderly are growing share of population in nations rich and poor

October 1, 2012 | 11:18 am


When experts envision the future, they see a world in which more people are aged, a celebrated sign of progress that also puts new demands on families and governments.

People ages 60 or older made up less than 12% of the global population this year. But by the middle of the century, that percentage will nearly double to 22%, the United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge International said in a report released Monday.

The elderly will make up an even greater share of the population — more than a third — in Europe and East Asia.

SERIES: Beyond 7 billion

The graying of the globe is the result of elderly people living longer while families have fewer children. Though longer lives have been heralded as a sign of triumphs in medicine, nutrition and sanitation, the trend also means more people living with dementia and greater demands on pension systems, among other challenges.

Aging will also have a powerful impact on less developed countries, which now have younger populations than developed countries but face an even greater pace of population aging, the U.N. report warned. Though most of the elderly now live in wealthier countries such as the United States and Japan, that will change by 2050, when nearly four out of five elderly people will be living in developing countries.

Though Japan is the poster child for aging countries — more than 41% of its population is expected to have celebrated its 60th birthday by 2050 — the elderly will make up roughly a quarter of the population or more in less affluent countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Uruguay. Their share of the population will nearly double to 10.3% in two dozen of the least developed countries on the globe, the report said.

Many countries do not appear to be prepared to care for growing numbers of the aged, the report warned. Only one-third of nations have comprehensive social protection plans, it found. Job discrimination against seniors and elderly abuse are serious problems that will become even more pressing.

“We must commit to ending the widespread mismanagement of aging,” said Richard Blewitt, chief executive of HelpAge International. “Concrete, cost-effective advances will come from ensuring age investment begins at birth — fully recognizing that the vast majority of people will live into old age.”

The report consulted 1,300 older men and women and found that more than a third found it difficult to get healthcare when they needed it, more than half had trouble paying for basic services, and more than four out of 10 were fearful of personal violence.

The challenges of caring for an aging population will come on top of the demands of providing for an expanding one: Despite dropping birthrates, the global population is still expected to surge from 7 billion up to 9.3 billion by the middle of the century, piling other pressures onto the environment and social systems.


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— Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A young girl and elderly people practice physical activity with wooden dumbbells during an event organised for the Respect-for-the Aged Day in Tokyo last month. Credit: Franck Robichon / European Pressphoto Agency