Healthy aging and sustainability are not (yet) best friends

Healthy aging and sustainability are not (yet) best friends

April 19, 2018

Healthy aging and sustainability are not (yet) best friends

For the first time in history, most of the world population has a life expectancy above 60 years, but dramatic change is needed for aging  to become a tool of sustainability. 

Living longer should be a great opportunity, at least in theory. It provides an opportunity to re-think our timing and managing of the different stages of life, because aging  should not necessarily mean more years spent away from active life. 

For longer life expectancy to be a real advantage for the individual and the community, however, an essential condition has to apply: health. World Health Organization (WHO) experts know it too well, and they devised a “global strategy and action plan on aging and health 2016-2020” designed to open the way for the Decade of healthy aging scheduled for 2020-2030. Putting the WHO strategy into practice also means helping towards the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals

Beyond stereotypes and prejudice

According to the WHO definition, healthy aging means more than simply being free from disease. Rather, it means "maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age”. Functional ability is about having the capabilities that enable all people to be and do what they have reason to value". To achieve this final target, individual commitment is not sufficient: society has to support a number of essential changes in order to sustainably deal with a growing number of over60s. In 2050, there will be 2 million of them, 80% of whom will live in low and medium income countries. 

One of the first steps towards healthy aging based on sustainability is surely the fight against “ageism”, a negative attitude full of stereotypes and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. 

According to some research, ageism is even more pervasive than racism and sexism, and it takes different shapes: from individual discriminatory attitudes to public policies that actually reinforce prejudice against the elderly. The “World report on ageing and health”, published in 2015 by the WHO, helps to overcome the widespread prejudice against aging and its consequences on people and society. The document highlights, for example, that not all elderly people are the same. "There are eighty year olds with better physical and mental conditions than some twenty year olds. Other elderly people may need help for basic actions like getting dressed or eating", the report states. Furthermore, we should not forget that healthy aging depends on genetic factors to a small extent, but is mostly the result of on-going interactions with specific social and environmental contexts. This is why it is important to begin laying the conditions for good aging in the earlier phases of life. Data shows that today's elderly to not enjoy better health compared to previous generations, but we should not think that over60s are just a weight on society. A 2011 UK study, for example, showed that the contribution of elderly people in terms of taxes, consumption and other economic activity was 40 million pounds higher than the public expenditure devoted to them (pensions, welfare and health). This value is expected to reach 77 million pounds by 2030.

Over60 sustainability

One thing is for sure: we need immediate public health and societal responses to the new social equilibrium where the elderly carry great weight and are capable of playing a new part. The WHO guidelines on Integrated Care for Older People (ICOPE), published in 2017, provide some advice, but we can also look at the Sustainable Development Goals for inspiration.  

Here are some recommendations from the WHO experts.

Goal 1 - No poverty. To avoid elderly people becoming poor, we need flexible retirement policies, guaranteed minimum pensions, changes in the perception of the contribution that elderly people can offer to the workplace, and help for the families who care for their elderly. 

Goal 2 - Zero hunger. Older people provide a significant contribution to food production, but they are at risk in terms of food security. Here, we need better quality food enriched with vitamins and minerals that provide the right amounts of calories and protein to support isolated and fragile individuals who may not have access to daily meals. Many studies (the latest one was published by the University of Exeter in the UK) show that the Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables and with few animal proteins, delays aging and improves the health of the over60s as well as that of the Planet. The Mediterranean diet also has the best environmental footprint.


Goal 3 – Health and welfare for all. Unless we take older people's needs into consideration, it will not be possible to achieve the Universal Health Cover recommended by the United Nations. In this area, we need a true overhaul of the health systems, currently focused on the management of serious diseases rather than the chronic illnesses that are typical of the elderly. 

Goal 4 – Quality education. Learning does not stop with age, on the contrary, ensuring that elderly people can keep informed and continue learning will enable them to improve their daily life management and increase their independence. 

Goal 5 – Gender equality. In 2015, women represented 54 per cent of over60s and 61 per cent of over80s, guaranteeing their essential support to growing families and grandchildren. Supporting women's work and ad hoc social pensions are two important steps to reach gender parity. 

Goal 11 – Resilient and sustainable cities and communities. Our current scenario needs cities that are old people-friendly and cater for their needs in their infrastructure as well as social life.  

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