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Growing Old in the Third World: How population shifts will change humanitarian aid

By: Maija Ehlinger  The 67th Annual UN General Assembly wrapped up with the pomp and circumstances and all the debate that one can expect from such a meeting. Talks centered on the geopolitical strife that plagues many regions of the world, and of course focused efforts on promoting stability. And as the assembly dealt with global threats to security for the present time, a seemingly less important global shift was occurring.

The world was getting older.

Indeed, the world is undergoing a dramatic restructuring of its population; one which will have a huge impact on how the current ‘Millennials’ age. Earlier this month, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) issued a report calling for world governments to specifically address issues relating to ageing populations. While this may not seem as important of a discussion in the light of recent uprisings, we must note that addressing senior citizens concerns is extremely relevant to global development and humanitarian efforts.

Current statistics state that 22% of the world’s population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2050. This means that current college students are part of this worldwide population shift.  According to the UNFPA, older people will make up the largest percentage of the total world population in the near future, which will be a huge deviation from human population records throughout history.[1] In many ways, such a stark demographic shift can be seen as a triumph for both politics and public health. The war against infectious disease, the increase in humanitarian aid, along with new health care technologies have made longer life-spans possible in regions where life was generally cut too short by conflict or disease.

Care for the elderly may not seem like an issue to be addressed on an international scale. But the UNFPA’s report summarizing the population shift begs the question, how will the rise in the number of senior citizen impact public policy in the coming decades?  As the UNFPA report states, the most dramatic rise in the number of elderly people will occur in the developing world, as over 80% of the ageing population will live around the poverty line by 2050.[2] As the developed world continues to give humanitarian aid to regions in need, it seems only natural that this population shift will force aid organizations to rethink their distribution process, since the above 60 year old population requires a more specialized type of care. Increased life expectancy will only increase the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, memory disorders, as well as a slew of other chronic diseases.

If public health officials and governments are going to adequately address their countries’ needs in the future, they will have to find a way to make senior citizen care accessible to a growing group of individuals.  In the United States, the general increase in age has indeed meant a greater emphasis on pharmaceutical companies; a shift that has huge implications on the current health care structure.[3] The necessity for geriatric care abroad will reshape how humanitarian organizations address the distribution of food, prescriptions, and mental health services. From a population health perspective, the greatest challenges in the coming years will be how to create a worldwide health care system where the elderly have access to required medical assistance and supplies.  Most likely, this will also reshape our thoughts on global income security and job placement, since the largest demographic in society will be out of work.  Clearly, we have only begun to dive into the complicated issues that will stem from increased global life expectancy.

Traditionally, there has been a strong correlation with health status, life expectancy, and wealth.[4] But if future projections from the UN hold true, economic stability may no longer be a necessary condition for a long life. UNFPA’s report “Ageing in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and a Challenge” provides an eloquent call-to-action for world leaders to begin steps towards addressing the growing elderly population. Unfortunately, the report does not provide concrete steps to ensure that a more vulnerable population is adequately served in the future. The reality remains that growing old is expensive; hence, the elderly population in the developing world will indeed create an interesting public health and humanitarian issue for the coming generations. If the UN is serious about promoting a healthy elderly population in the future, and specifically promoting a more stable elderly population in the developing world, it will be necessary to regulate how each country plans to increase geriatric care.


[1] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), "Ageing in the 21st Century: A Celebration and Challenge," http://www.unfpa.org/ageingreport/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Herper, Matthew, "America's Most Popular Drugs," Forbes Magazine, April 19, 2011, http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2011/04/19/americas-most-popular-drugs/.

[4] World Mapper, http://worldmapper.com

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