Globally, aging populations are posing big challenges for healthcare systems; together, new technology and old techniques offer the opportunity to manage them.
The new challenge for the 21st Century
The Big Q: Can we live better?
The Big A: Yes!
The booming population of older adults is a testament to the incredible developments in science and technology over the last Century. Vaccines, antibiotics, and improved hygiene have helped keep many infectious diseases in check.
Safer conditions both at home and in the workplace also contribute to healthy aging and longer life spans, while new agricultural technologies and a better understanding of nutrition means people can eat better than their ancestors.
the increasing life spans made possible by these advances are creating new challenges for science.
While the advances of the 20th Century had the greatest effect on infectious diseases, the advances of the 21st Century will need to address the problems associated with chronic conditions that are increasingly prevalent among older adults.
Studies conducted in the United States show that about 80% of people over 65 have at least one chronic condition, and 68% have 2 or more. Among the most common of these conditions are: heart disease, lung disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
The trends being seen in the areas of diabetes and hypertension particularly illustrate the increased disease burden we face. Globally the number of people suffering from diabetes has risen from 108-M in Y 1980 to 425-M, with experts warning that 1 in 3 adults could have diabetes by Y 2050.
The number of people suffering from hypertension, 1 of the main risk factors for heart disease and stroke, has almost 3X’d to nearly 1-B since Y 198o, with 41% of adults in the US predicted to have high blood pressure by Y 2030, and by Y 2050, almost 450-M people will be 80 or older.
The unseen impact of chronic conditions
While chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension increase the chance of death in older adults, many people overlook the effect these increasingly common conditions also have on the quality of life of older people.
For example, both can have profound effects on an older person’s eyesight.
Diabetic retinopathy, a condition that occurs when high blood sugar levels cause damage to blood vessels in the retina, affects 1 in 3 people living with diabetes, and one in 10 diabetics develop a vision-threatening form of the disease.
Another common cause of blindness among older adults is age related macular degeneration (AMD) that slowly destroys a person’s central vision, the type of vision necessary for tasks like reading and driving. While the causes of AMD are complex, it is also linked to diabetes and hypertension.
Preserving health for a happy old age
Preventing or controlling the types of chronic diseases that afflict an aging population is Key to preserving quality of life. In the case of eye problems, WHO estimates 80% of all visual impairment can be prevented or cured, and a large part of prevention involves properly managing conditions like diabetes and hypertension through a combination of diet, exercise and currently available Rx medications.
However, advances and new classes of pharmaceuticals are proving more effective at managing or even eliminating some of the most common chronic conditions associated with aging, and breakthroughs in manufacturing mean that existing treatments are becoming more widely available.
For instance: researchers are already exploring genetic sequencing techniques to combat diabetes. However, the gene therapy is not used directly on diabetics. Instead it is used on the bacteria that naturally creates a substance used in pharmaceuticals that diabetics take to regulate blood sugar. By altering the genes of bacteria to make them more effective in this role, scientists can help meet the increasing demand for antidiabetic medications.
Potential help for older adults goes well beyond pills or injections.
In Japan, where more than 25% of the population is already over 65, specialized robots called carebots are increasingly being used to assist the older people with everything from turning off lights to moving from a bed to a wheelchair. Carebots are even assisting the growing numbers of visually impaired seniors by reading barcodes on medicine labels, helping to ensure that vision loss does not prevent older people from taking their medications properly.
80 is the New 60
Robotics and medications are only just of an abundance of new developments that will help meet the challenges associated with an aging population. As new innovations aimed at improving the health of older adults become more widely available, it’s possible that subsequent gains in life expectancy may mean that in the future you will have to be much older than 80 to be a member of the oldest old.
As comedian George Burns told declared at a Friar’s Club ‘Roast’, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”
Have a terrific weekend.