Ageing Societies

Large cities like Tokyo are home to many centenarians. For example, 103-year-old Ms. Matsu Yamazaki lives in Tokyo’s north-western suburbs with her family. She stays active by walking around the neighbourhood. She spends her time in her shop and she makes crafts. She retains strong bonds with her family. As a result, her coordination and cognitive skills remain stimulated.

Recently, she has been involved in the centenarian research of Dr. Nobuyoshi Hirose from Keio University. By studying a centenarian’s physiology, mental activities and social environment, Dr. Hirose is trying to narrow down the factors that contribute to longevity.

What does Ms Yamazaki’s story tell us?

Our Ageing World

Every month, more than a million people turn 60.

The world is ageing rapidly. The number of people aged 65 and over will double as a proportion of the global population, from 7% in 2000 to 16% in 2050. By then, there will be more older people than children (aged 0–14 years) in the population for the first time in human history.

Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unpp

Scientific and technological advances, industrialization, socioeconomic development, improved communication, better hygiene and increased food intake have helped to increase life expectancy and reduce mortality rates in recent decades. Since 1840, global life expectancy has indeed risen in a linear fashion for both sexes, with an increase of almost three months per year for women.

The most dramatic gains have been in East Asia, and Japan is no exception: it is now the most aged society in the world.

Life expectancy now surpasses 83 years in Japan, the highest level in the world. Japan also has the highest healthy life expectancy, 78 years for women and 72 years for men.

Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unpp

Changes in the crude death rate reflected a similar trend but in the opposite direction. Currently, the crude death rate for the entire world is 9.6 per 1,000, but there is considerable variation amongst nations.

Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unpp

A society with fewer children

Following a period of rapid growth that started in the late 19th century, Japan’s population started to slow in the 1980s with an annual pace of growth that averaged 1%. Since the 1980s, this rate has declined sharply with 2005 being the first year of decrease in the total population.

More than 20 other countries are projected to experience a similar shrinking of their population in coming decades. In the next five years, citizens over 60 years old will outnumber children under 5 for the first time globally. In Japan, the elderly have surpassed the younger age group since 1997.

Low fertility rates in many societies, below that needed to replenish the population, are hastening the demographic transition occurring worldwide.

Source: United States Census Bureau (2008)

More elderly

The immediate consequence of fewer children and more elderly is that the median age of a society increases. In his 2007 study on ageing in Japan, Florian Coulmas states that “in 1989, the elderly of 65 years and older accounted for 11.6% of Japanese population.” In 2006, this proportion had reached 20%, just short of the mark that indicates the transition from an aged to a hyper-aged society. However, the most recent data from the Government of Japan shows that as of March 2008, the number of people over the age of 65 has reached 21.6%.

According to Coulmas, there are three different types of society based on the proportion of elderly as follows:

  • Ageing society: 7-14% of the population are 65 years or older.
  • Aged society: 14-21% of the population are 65 years or older.
  • Hyper-aged society: 21% or more of the population are 65 years or older.

So we can conclude that Japan has now crossed into the “hyper-aged” category. Perhaps those of you from outside of Japan can check on the status of your country and also reflect upon the implications of each phase in the transition to a hyper-aged society, using Japan’s experience of a guide. For background reading, see Florian Coulmas (2007) Population Decline and Ageing in Japan – the Social Consequences, Routledge.

Centenarians are a growing segment of today’s ageing population

More distinctive is the tremendous increase in the oldest old (of which Ms. Yamazaki is a wonderful example). There are now more than 32,000 centenarians in Japan, 85% of whom are women. This number has steadily increased since 1970, when there were only 310 Japanese citizens aged over 100. Between 2005 and 2025, centenarians will be the age group with the highest increase.

Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (2007). [http://www.mhlw.go.jp/houdou/2007/09/dl/h0914-3a.pdf]

Japan is the country with the highest number of centenarians, and by 2030, more than 25% of its population is expected to be at least 85 years old.

Developed and Developing Countries travel the same path, at a different pace

Women outlive men in virtually all societies. A few developing countries have higher male life expectancy than female, but, on average, the female advantage in most developing countries is slightly less than five years. The gender gap is generally projected to decrease in developed countries and increase in developing countries.

Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unpp

Ageing affects all societies – high-income as well as low and middle-income societies – but at a different pace.

The same demographic ageing process that unfolded over 115 years in France, took only 26 years in Japan and will be 21 years in Brazil.

Source: United Nations The Aging of Population and its Economic and Social Implication Population Studies No.26, New York, 1956 (Before 1940:): United Nations World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision (After 1940)

Between 2006 and 2030, the number of older people in low and middle income countries is projected to increase by 140% as compared to 51% higher income countries. For example, see the WHO report on Ageing in India.

Demographic changes and ageing are presenting developmental challenges for many countries, which may grow old before growing rich. See WHO report on Social Development and Ageing – Crisis of Opportunity.

Policy-makers must be particularly attentive to these challenges and build on successful global experiences.

Relevant Links:

WHO website on Ageing

WHO Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health

Ageing and Health – WHO Regional Office for Africa

Ageing and Health – WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific

Japanese National Government website on Measures for an Aged Society (available only in Japanese)

Dr. Nobuyoshi Hirose’s research website at Keio University (available in Japanese only)