Latin America and the Caribbean is aging at an unprecedented rate. In 1960, 3.8% of the population was over 65 years old. By 2015, this percentage had increased to 7.2% and it is expected that by 2040 it will be 14.4%. That is, in 30 years, the population of older adults will double. Those older than 80 years old, which today represent 11% of the population over 60 years old, will also face changes: by 2030 they will represent 15% and by 2050, 26%. This demographic change itself is good news, the result of better living conditions and advances in medical science and technology. However, it will present multiple challenges for governments, which will face a longer-lived but not necessarily healthier population.
The Increase in Chronic Diseases
A study published by the Inter-American Development Bank warns of the growing deterioration of health among the elderly population. The report points out that, along with the age of the population, the presence of chronic diseases has increased. Indeed, aging is responsible for around 15% of the increase in the total burden of mortality and morbidity instances attributable to chronic diseases between 2006 and 2016.
Nevertheless, other factors have also influenced, including a more sedentary lifestyle, tobacco use, unhealthy diets and alcohol consumption, as well as high rates of infectious diseases in the region, to which the elderly are more vulnerable. It is also possible that, thanks to medical advances and increased coverage of health systems in recent decades, a greater likelihood of early diagnosis has increased the figures of cases that were previously unreported.
Thus, the great challenge for health systems is to get their populations to age healthily and avoid chronic diseases that may appear prematurely due to not paying attention to risk factors. Cardiovascular diseases, for example, account for 25% of the ailments of the population over 60 years old. Better blood pressure control, for instance, could help avoid half of the cases of these diseases.
Diabetes is another chronic disease that has increased alarmingly in recent decades in Latin America and the Caribbean, to the extent that it is considered an epidemic. Today it affects 20% of those over 60 years old and is a particularly serious problem in the Caribbean countries, where more than 30% of its inhabitants suffer from it. Like hypertension, it is often not diagnosed. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that 80% of those who suffer from it live in low- and middle-income countries and half of them do not know they have the disease.
The Challenge of Disability and Mental Health Among the Elderly
The presence of chronic diseases increases the degree of disability and the intensity of dependence as a consequence of age. The limitations or difficulties to carry out activities autonomously such as walking, seeing or hearing and even communicating increase considerably, particularly after the age of 80. In some countries in the region, including Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, the proportion of people with some type of disability is even doubled in this age group. We also know that the prevalence of dependence is greater among older adults than in other population groups.
On the other hand, the aging of the population has also resulted in an increase in the number of people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Due to demographic changes in the region, these conditions especially affect those over 80 years old and, in particular, women. In addition, Latin America and the Caribbean is the region of the world where the fastest increase in people living with dementia is expected to occur in the coming years. According to the WHO, by 2030 there will be almost 8 million people with dementia.
Turning Challenge into Opportunity
Considering that by 2050 the proportion of adults over 60 in Latin America and the Caribbean will be similar to that of countries like Germany and Switzerland today, governments cannot afford to postpone public policies that anticipate and reduce pressures to the future. Although we still cannot speak of an aged population in the region, the fact that this change is taking place in a more accelerated way than in any other part of the world must arouse alarms. The combination of the increase in life expectancy and unhealthy aging places older adults in a particularly vulnerable situation. It presents a huge challenge that can be taken as an opportunity. The public and private sectors can take advantage of the technology and tools available to devise solutions so that the last years of life can be spent in better conditions, and to design and implement policies that promote healthy aging with a view to not only more, but to better years of life.
Can we respond adequately to the growing demand for health services and other needs of the elderly? Share your opinion in the comments or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.