International Summit Tackles Challenge of Aging Populations

By Cheryl Pellerin
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – U.S. officials and international experts came together March 15 at the U.S. State Department to discuss and begin to plan for a situation that until now has not received much attention from governments around the world – the aging of the world's populations.

For the first time in history, people 65 years old and older soon will outnumber children under age 5, according to Why Population Aging Matters: A Global Perspective, a report produced jointly by the State Department and the National Institute on Aging, an agency within the National Institutes of Health.

As people everywhere age, the prevalence of chronic disease increases, straining insurance, pensions and other social support systems. Governments in developed and developing nations are starting to realize that global aging can affect economic growth, labor forces, trade migration, international relations and national security.


To promote greater international dialogue on these challenges, the State Department hosted a Summit on Global Aging for diplomats and experts on aging, health and economic issues.

"One of the key goals of this summit," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told attendees, "is to begin a conversation that will stimulate dialogue, encourage collaboration, and promote national and international research that will help to provide the answers that we need."

The United States, she added, "is eager to work shoulder to shoulder with our international partners to address the concerns of our aging citizens."

In 2006, nearly 500 million people worldwide were 65 or older. By 2030, according to the report, the total is projected to increase to 1 billion – one in every eight people on the planet. The fastest increases in those 65 and older are occurring in developing countries, which will see a jump in that population of 140 percent by 2030.

"Never before has the State Department hosted such an event on global aging," said Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs. "We see this as an important discussion in the context of foreign policy as the aging of populations around the world will affect both our own society and how we interact with other nations."

Aging populations demonstrate the triumph of public health, medical advances and economic development over disease and injury, but they also create a need to modify policies and practices to fit the new demographic reality.


In the United States, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responds to global aging through the work of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Maryland.

"NIA is a world leader in aging research and we're proud of it and committed to it," said HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt. "Surveys designed by NIA track the health and retirement of Americans over a lengthy period of time, and they are used as models for similar surveys around the world. NIA also funds cross-national research and hosts foreign scholars and visiting fellows. It's important that we continue to support this kind of cross-national research. It's good for all of us."

NIA co-funds more than 24 cross-national aging-related datasets and single-country studies of aging. These include the International Database on Aging, involving 227 countries; the International Network for the Demographic Evaluation of Populations and Their Health, involving 19 developing nations; the Human Mortality Database, involving 28 countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) Study on Global Aging and Adult Health; and studies with Mexico, China, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Korea.

With WHO, NIA supports the 2006 Global Burden of Disease and Risk Factors Initiative, which looks at the combined toll of death and disability in populations and makes it possible to compare patterns among populations, to help researchers understand the burden on people, countries and economies.


In 10 years to 15 years, according to the Global Burden of Disease project, the loss of health and life in every region of the world, including Africa, will be greater from the noncommunicable or chronic diseases of aging like heart disease, cancer and diabetes than from infectious diseases like AIDS or parasitic diseases like malaria.

But there is a difference between developed and developing countries, said Julio Frenk, former minister of health for Mexico. Developed countries, with more advanced health care systems, tend to "move from a predominance of communicable, infectious diseases that mostly affect children, to a predominance of noncommunicable diseases" that affect mainly adults.

But most developing countries often have to deal with both kinds of disease at the same time – a "double burden of disease" - of common infections, maternal deaths and malnutrition, along with noncommunicable diseases and their associated risk factors.

“This is adding layers of complexity to the health picture around the world,” Frenk said, and adding to the increasing pressure on health care systems, especially in developing nations.

The full text of Why Population Aging Matters: A Global Perspective is available on the State Department Web site.

More information about the National Institute on Aging is available at the NIH Web site.