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Global Aging: 4 Myths Debunked

Lessons learned at Columbia University's Age Boom Academy

You probably know that the world is growing older due to a combination of declining fertility and longer lives. But chances are, four things you think you know about aging in the U.S. and globally are myths.

They were debunked for me at a three-day program in New York City I just attended called Age Boom Academy whose theme was Global Aging: Danger Ahead?

The Most Important Phenomenon

Ursula M. Staudinger, Director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center said: “Population growth will come to a halt by the end of the 21st century, give or take 10 or 20 years.”

If Staudinger’s quote didn’t get your attention, maybe this will: “The global boom in aging might be the most important phenomenon of our time,” said Jack Rosenthal, co-founder of Age Boom Academy, President Emeritus of The New York Times Company Foundation and a former New York Times reporter.

The oldest old — people 80 and older — is the fastest growing share of the world’s population nowadays.

— Thomas Spoorenberg, UN

People 60 and older now comprise 0.9 billion of the world’s population; that figure is expected to balloon to 2 billion by 2050. And one cocktail-party tidbit: Today, more old-age diapers are sold in Japan than diapers for infants.

The Age Boom Academy, now in its 15th year, is a program from Columbia University’s Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and Columbia’s journalism school for journalists from around the world covering aging issues. Twenty of us (including my Next Avenue colleagues Kerry Hannon, Chris Farrell and Mark Miller) heard experts from the likes of the World Health Organization, the United Nations, Columbia, the International Longevity Center and New York City’s Health & Human Services Department share their research and thinking about aging.

4 Myths of Global Aging

Over the next few months, you can expect to see a host of Next Avenue stories that bubbled up from Age Boom Academy. But today I’ll focus on the four myths of global aging:

Myth No. 1: Challenges of Population Aging Are Limited to the Developed Countries

We hear a lot about the aging U.S. population and a bit about a similar story in Europe. But less-developed countries are facing aging challenges that are just as great or greater than ours. “China is about to have more older people than the U.S. has population,” said Dr. Linda P. Fried, Dean of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and a geriatrician.

“The oldest old — people 80 and older — is the fastest growing share of the world’s population nowadays,” said Thomas Spoorenberg of the UN’s Population Estimates and Projections Section in its Population Division in New York, N.Y. Currently, the total number of people 80 and older is about the same in more- and less-developed countries. But over the next few decades, that figure will shoot up dramatically in the less-developed ones, Spoorenberg noted.

Joel Cohen, an applied mathematician, demographer, author and head of the Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University and Columbia University, helped us visualize this with some drawings.

In 1970, the population of less-developed countries looked like a pyramid (not many very old people at the apex and plenty of young ones near the bottom). In 2010, it looked more like the Empire State Building, with a thin needle representing the oldest atop a column of the rest of the population of varying ages. By 2050, these countries will look more like a standard skyscraper, with so many more older residents that they’ll be similar in number to the number of younger ones.

Cohen’s advice to these countries: Keep your young people healthy. “What we invest in young people, we get back with high returns in the improved health of older people a generation later,” he noted.

Myth No. 2: Cities Are for Young People

“The concentration of older people in cities is increasing,” said Louise Plouffe, Director of Research at the International Longevity Centre Canada. Currently, 11 percent of older adults live in cities and that figure will double by 2050, said Rosenthal. Plouffe cited one population projection estimating that although the world’s older population will increase ninefold from 1999 to 2050 overall, it will wind up 16 times higher than before in cities.

One reason: some cities are working feverishly to make themselves more age-friendly, partly due to the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities which began in 2010. There are now 258 of them in 28 countries, covering over 100 million people.

One is New York City.

“New York had done away with most benches at bus stops because homeless people slept on them, and to handle a problem we created a worse one,” said Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. To assist the city’s older residents, New York has recently installed 536 benches at 173 bus stops. “What’s good for seniors is also good for mothers with little babies,” Barrios-Paoli noted.

Two other age-friendly improvements in the Big Apple: cultural discounts and city-run pools with seniors-only hours. (“There was a high danger of falling with a lot of children running around,” said Barrios-Paoli.) Incidentally, one global aging issue is what to call the world’s elders — seniors isn’t terrific, though it’s better than geezers, golden agers or Gomers, which is the medical, behind-older-patients’-backs acronym for Get Out of My Emergency Room, said Rosenthal.

But many cities still have a lot to do to become more helpful for active aging. Plouffe cited her recent trip to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where city buses have turnstiles that are hard to maneuver. “No city is perfect,” she said.

And, added Ruth Finkelstein, Associate Director of the International Longevity Center-Columbia Aging Center: “Affordable, appropriately accessible housing is the biggest issue that can limit the ability of people of all ages to live well in cities.”

Myth No. 3: Age-Related Increase in Chronic Diseases Is a Problem of Wealthy Nations

Moise Desvarieux, an epidemiology professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and his colleague, Dean Fried, put this one to rest.

Desvarieux said the highest rates of smoking, alcohol, diabetes and heart disease are not in the wealthiest countries, but in less-developed ones. In addition, noted Fried, 88 percent of people facing the health consequences of environmental threats are in low- and middle-income countries.

Fried emphatically asserted, however, that “prevention works at every age and stage,” so a stronger effort could lower the numbers of people with age-related chronic diseases in such countries. “Health into the oldest ages is the essential foundation to unlocking the benefits of longer lives,” she said.

We might want to look to our new-found friends in Cuba for some ideas. I was intrigued by what I heard about Cuba’s 120 Years Club, which aims to help the country’s 80+ residents live to 120 through healthy aging practices. Cuba and China, Fried said, are investing heavily in training geriatricians to provide holistic chronic care at a low cost.

Myth No. 4: Families Take Care of Their Elders

Here, the focus shifted to Africa and India. We may want to believe families there do a much better job than we do assisting their older residents, but the reality belies it.

One myth contrasts “positive African values with the West’s,” said Isabella Aboderin, a Senior Research Scientist and Head of the Program on Aging and Development at the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya. This myth maintains that “in Africa, unlike the West, families wish to take care of and not abandon their elders,” said Aboderin.

The truth, she said, is that there is substantial unmet need for family care in Africa. Aboderin noted that 20 percent of older Nigerians lack family care but require it. She told us that the quality of family care in Africa is “severely compromised” due to a lack of skills, resources and time.

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, pointed to a 2013 court ruling in China after the country had just instituted a parental support law. In this case, the judge ruled in favor of a 77-year-old mother, ordering her daughter to visit her mom twice a month and provide financial support.

Finkelstein put it well, if painfully: “There is stigma and shame and conflicted feelings about the difficulties people have in figuring out how to care for their parents.”

That’s a global problem I hope we all solve soon.

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