Humanity has long been obsessed with how long they would live. In 1513, the Spanish explorer Ponce de León set out in search of the Fountain of Youth, a fabled wellspring thought to give everlasting life to whoever bathed in or drank from it. American writer Mark Twain noted that “life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18”.
Nowadays, it is no longer a fantasy that we can live longer. Life expectancy has nearly doubled in the past 100 years. As we look to the future, older populations are expected to increase globally. Today, 8.5% of people (617 million) worldwide are aged 65 and over. By 2050, this is projected to more than double, and the global population of people aged 80 and older is expected to more than triple.
In industrialized and developing countries, the rate of population ageing stands to fundamentally affect how families, communities, societies, industries and economies function.
The shift portends challenges for individuals and society as a whole. For example, increased rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) will place increased demands on health systems. Likewise, social insurance and retirement programmes are becoming strained as the number of dependents rises. Indeed, ageing is often viewed as a societal burden.
Transforming extra years into an opportunity
It doesn’t, however, have to be this way. These extra years can be turned into opportunity. Think about how much more one could accomplish and experience with those extra years of life. Think about how much value this group of older adults can add to society. But here’s the catch because to do any of those things, you have to be healthy. This is not just about living longer; it’s about living healthier, more meaningful lives, whatever our age.
Realizing this opportunity and also tackling the potential challenges posed by an ageing population is a global imperative. These changes are likely to happen sooner than most people anticipate and we need to prepare now. We know that society needs to take a multipronged approach to tackle the challenges of a rapidly ageing population – employment and social policy, retirement schemes, fiscal policy, healthcare, social well-being and other critical issues must be addressed in the broader scheme of preparing for healthy ageing.
The Global Grand Challenge in Health and Medicine
This is why the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) has decided to tackle healthy longevity for its Global Grand Challenge in Health and Medicine. Through this Grand Challenge, the NAM seeks to catalyse a worldwide movement to increase physical, mental and social well-being for people as they age. The Grand Challenge will have two components: a Healthy Longevity Global Competition to catalyse breakthrough innovations from any field to improve healthy longevity, and the Global Roadmap for Healthy Longevity, which assembles an international commission to develop an integrated and comprehensive strategy to healthy ageing (called the Roadmap to Healthy Longevity).
The international commission will develop a comprehensive report to create a roadmap for healthy ageing and longevity. Importantly, the report will use a multisectoral approach to address the many elements of preparing for population ageing, such as those described by the WHO (see Figure 1.4 from the report).
The commission’s report will be informed by workstreams in three areas:
- Social, behavioural and environmental enablers
- Healthcare and public health systems
- Science and technology
With equity at its centre, particular consideration will be given to policy and practice, innovation, financing and monitoring metrics. The initiative will bring together thought leaders from biological and behavioural sciences, medicine, healthcare, public health, engineering, technology, economics, and policy to identify the priorities and directions for improving health, productivity and quality of life for older adults worldwide.
There have been international policy instruments that provide frameworks for addressing population ageing, but tangible progress to coordinate comprehensive global action is urgently needed. Where possible, the Commission will seek to achieve an integrated and synergistic effort with other related global initiatives. From these findings, the Commission will put forward recommendations designed to spur innovation, and guide policy-makers, governmental and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and multistakeholders globally. It is expected that these recommendations will be adapted, refined and implemented in different contexts and environments.
The Global Future Council on Longevity
The World Economic Forum has also launched a Global Future Council (GFC) on Longevity with a focus on opportunities to support healthy longevity and to ensure that society is ready for ageing populations. The GFC will bring together people representing research organizations, the private sector, academia, international organizations, governments, and civil society organizations to collectively explore this topic.
Specifically, the Global Future Council on Longevity aims to raise awareness and shape action on healthy longevity on the global agenda as well as generate and disseminate content and insights. Through these efforts, the Global Future Council on Longevity aims to effect systemic change.
A holistic systems-approach is essential to preparing for healthy ageing, whereby all sectors collaborate to advance the lifestyles, behaviours, services, support and infrastructures essential to fostering good and equitable health outcomes, along with ongoing productivity and societal value, as people live longer.
These are the shared goals of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Longevity and the NAM Global Grand Challenge in Health and Medicine. Addressing the opportunities and implications of healthy longevity will be a critical component of how society navigates the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Victor Dzau, President, National Academy of Medicine
Celynne Balatbat, Special Assistant to the President, National Academy of Medicine