In Geneva this week the World Health Organization (WHO) sent a wake-up call to its 194 member governments and its fellow global institutions to open their eyes to what’s staring them in the face: a world that will soon have more old than young; a world where people over 80 is the fastest growing demographic segment; a world where planning for 100 years of life is for the first time in history the norm.
This is massive.
The exhaustive new report from WHO provides guidance for policymakers by framing a 21st century understanding of what healthy aging is. In the process, it re-defines the course of public health from the 20th century’s “absence of disease” to today’s “functional ability.” WHO has given us this framework through the prism of 21st century longevity.
The successful 100-year life span is about function and ability, and contribution and participation in social and economic affairs. As Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of WHO says, “The greatest costs to society are not the expenditures made to foster this functional ability, but the benefits that might be missed if we fail to make the appropriate adaptations and investments.”
At its heart, healthy aging is about future generations -- not just Baby Boomers and the octogenarians of today. Think of it this way: How will the children born in the 1990s in live through two centuries their lives will touch? And how will they thrive in a world with more old than young? A world where the proportion of society – the first time in the history of human kind – has an inverted age structure. The age pyramid is on its tip and widens with aging. This is new. As with any pyramid balancing on its point, it will require enormous global efforts to restructure the social contract for this global society.
This new WHO report will prove to be monumental not only because it redefines healthy aging, but also because it connects to personal freedom, fiscal sustainability, and economic growth. Indeed, “functional ability” is not only about crafting a life that is fulfilling in its older years, but also about our collective success when there are two billion of us over 60.
When we start to parse this term “functional ability,” we see that it includes a range of building blocks: everything from our emotional state to maintaining good vision longer into our older years. The prospects for active 100-year lives multiply by reducing the near perfect correlation between today’s muscle mass and bone deterioration.
Of course, the WHO does recognize that the pathways for healthy aging will still need to account for the growing epidemics of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease – all aligned with our longevity.
This WHO report marks a revolution because it forces us to recognize that aging isn’t just about the old. It’s about all of us. And aging is not just about diseases – but also health and activity, work and financial planning. It marks health policy as an essential milestone to better lives, individually and for society.
A century ago, when we were building the policies and institutions that support our lives today – around health, retirement, education, etc. – we’d have been lucky to live past 57. Now we have to plan for 100 – maybe more. The WHO Report on Ageing and Health gives us the pathway to 21st century healthy aging. Now it’s up toall of us to act!