On Oct. 1, the International Day of Older Persons, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its first World Report on Aging and Health. It comes at a propitious moment in history. Japan, already the world’s most aged society with over a quarter of its citizens over 65 years, also has the world’s longest life expectancy. Japan is not alone. Worldwide, this year 901 million people are aged 60 and over (12.3 per cent of the total population). It is projected that this figure will reach 1.4 billion by 2030 and just over 2 billion by 2050 (or about 22 percent of the world’s population).

The director-general of the WHO, Margaret Chan, noted that “today, most people, even in the poorest countries, are living longer lives. But this is not enough. We need to ensure these extra years are healthy, meaningful and dignified. Achieving this will not just be good for older people, it will be good for society as a whole.”

The concept of healthy aging shifts our thinking about health in older persons from solely the presence or absence of disease to a focus on an older person’s well-being, as well as their ability to function well and meaningfully within the context that they live in. To achieve this will require radical changes in society perceives older people and supports them, as well as in our health and social care systems, if we are to collectively benefit from these extra years of life.

Japan reminds us that managing demographic transition to an aged society is indeed rewarding but can be quite challenging. With increased longevity, have come other issues such as increases in noncommunicable diseases, managing the inevitable physical and cognitive decline that accompanies older ages, a rise in health care and social-care costs — all of which occur in the context of limits in government budgets, a shortage of health and social service workers, as well as below-replacement birthrates and fewer working age people supporting those older people. Japan offers a glimpse of our collective future, today, and the extent of the public health and public policy opportunities and challenges.

The potential of older populations and longevity-based societies are enormous, but to fully realize this requires us to reject the stereotype of older people as frail and dependent, as many contributions that older people make are often overlooked, while the demands that population aging will place on society are frequently overemphasized or exaggerated.

While some older people will require care and support, older populations in general are very diverse and make multiple contributions to families, communities and society more broadly. These contributions far outweigh any investments that might be needed to provide the health services, long-term care and social security that older populations require. WHO recommends that policies need to shift from an emphasis on controlling costs, to a greater focus on enabling older people to do the things that matter to them.

Innovation is at the heart of further transforming our systems and societies to respond. Capitalizing on the many lessons from Japan, the global WHO Center for Health Development located in Kobe is leading work to explore social and technological innovations that are fit for purpose and respond to the needs of older persons, and to design coordinated and integrated health and social-care systems.

These efforts are part of its 10-year research strategy to support countries, including Japan, explore innovation for aging population in the context of universal health coverage (UHC). To further drive innovations, the center is organizing the second WHO Global Forum on Innovation for Aging Populations in Kobe on Oct. 7-9.

Japan has a unique opportunity to present its innovations and insights on the world stage as it hosts next year’s Group of Seven summit in May, the G-7 Health Ministers meeting in Kobe in September, as well as the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Kenya in 2016.

In so doing, Japan can attest to how UHC that it pioneered in 1961, and long-term care insurance implemented in 2000, have made a dramatic difference in ensuring equitable access to health and long-term care services for all of its population. Today’s older population is now benefiting from the earlier reforms, and a new vision for healthy aging creates the opportunity for the next generation.

We should all strive for this vision where everyone experiences healthy aging, thereby ensuring that longer lives and long-lived societies are also better ones.

Alex Ross is the director of the World Health Organization’s Center for Health Development, located in Kobe.

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