A Clear View of Aging Populations

A Clear View of Aging Populations

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When President Obama showed his resolve in his State of the Union address this week by stating, “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race," he was reflecting the need to balance revenue cuts against a vision of  spending for future growth. It’s not dissimilar to what we saw last week in Europe when leaders agreed on an EU budget.

Americans and Europeans both intuitively understand that spending today in areas such as education and wellness will not only create jobs, but invest in growth for the future. It also builds the crucial platform for positive economic value creation. This is critically true when it comes to keeping our aging populations healthier and more economically productive so that they’re less dependent tomorrow. They can even be part of the growth equation, since our aging process has been transformed because of breakthrough medical innovations.

Interestingly, at the moment of our political leaders’ budget commitments, a new report, “The High Costs of Low Vision,” by the International Federation on Ageing, proves the point: “Vision loss is no longer an inevitable part of the aging process. Thanks to innovations in diagnosis, biomedicine, nutrition, technology, and preventive care, people can age with strong, healthy vision.” 

RELATED:   Why America’s Aging Population Can Save Medicare

Throughout human history, vision loss has been part of the aging process and a leading source of huge costs. Yet this is changing. And if further investments in areas such as vision loss can lead to reduced spending tomorrow as well as be the basis for increased economic activity and contribution by a demographic previously thought to be dependent and even disabled – well, this is hugely transformational.

The report notes that an incredible 80 percent of vision loss around the world can be prevented. On one hand, such a high rate of preventable vision loss is a social, medical, and economic failure. Vision loss leads to isolation and dependency, stripping years of active and productive life away from those who suffer from it.

On the other hand, this rate of prevention also points to new promise. With the right policies in place, vision loss does not need to be a 21st century barrier to social and economic participation.

As the IFA’s report underscores, the consequences of vision loss are both social and economic. Socially, those with vision loss are more prone to clinical depression as well as a host of other physical health ailments. Economically, the medical and caregiving costs are exponentially higher for those with vision loss compared to those with healthy vision.

As dozens of countries around the world see the over-60 segment expand to 30 to 40 percent of the population, vision loss will become a public health and economic crisis if measures aren’t taken to end preventable vision loss. The IFA report lists policy recommendations that prevent this outcome, and both health and economic policymakers would be wise to follow them. 

A shift in the economic debate we’ve been having the past few years from crisis management to economic growth is seen dramatically in how we as societies – in America, Europe and globally – approach our aging populations. In our 21st century, 60-, 70-, and even 80-year-olds no longer have to be considered dependent. Healthy vision is only one part of this new paradigm.

But investing in that different future will take leadership and willingness to make the hard budget choices we are now hearing from various points around the globe.


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.