The U.N.’s New Shot at Relevance

The U.N.’s New Shot at Relevance

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While the rancorous negotiations over the debt ceiling continue in Washington, there’s some peaceful progress going on in New York – where there are also consequences for our national debt. The United Nations is gearing up for its fall Summit on NCDs, or non-communicable diseases. These health conditions will bankrupt our medical entitlement system unless we find better ways to manage and even cure them, so global solutions will be presented, discussed and debated.

With much of the world in financial crisis, it may seem egregious that the U.N. is putting such focus on NCDs. It isn’t. The world’s population is aging at watershed rates and NCD occurrence rates are skyrocketing among elderly populations – so the U.N. is doing exactly what it needs to do. It’s no exaggeration to say that the world’s financial future is in large part hinged on NCD treatment.

Consider Alzheimer's alone. The risk of the disease occurring in elderly Americans explodes from 1 in 8 at age 65, to 1 in 2 at age 85, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Globally, the costs in 2010 of the illness are estimated to be $604 billion. In developing countries, the costs are projected to be just as significant, if not even greater than, OECD countries. As projected by Alzheimer’s Disease International, the prevalence of the NCD will increase 282 percent in Asia and 370 percent in Africa by mid-century. 

With diabetes, the World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, the overall global diabetes population will increase by 37 percent. And for those over 65, the increase is a striking 134 percent.

And then there’s cancer. British women ages 60 to 64 are almost six times more likely to have cancer than women ages 35 to 38. The story is no better for women from Singapore, where women 55 to 60 are almost ten times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than women 30 to 34. And with cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, the story is also similar worldwide.

Simply put, the longer we live, the more likely we are to contract NCDs – yet our health systems were created in a different era, when we had a structurally different demographic makeup. We haven’t yet caught up.

So what can the U.N. do? A successful summit in September will have four outcomes. First, NCDs need to be placed squarely within the global public health agenda. Second, they must be connected to their fiscal and social impacts, especially with global aging populations. Third, aging as a concept needs to be understood as a strategic driver of NCDs. And fourth, technology and biomedical innovations need to be supported as critical to solutions. Innovation – not just a healthy lifestyle – is essential to prevention and cure.

If the U.N. can accomplish these things, the consequences would be huge. With NCDs, all countries share the same goals, and this is one area where the U.N. can have real impact and relevance.

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.