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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

World Health Day: A new look at old age

The theme for this year’s World Health Day (held on April 7th) is aging and health. Under the title of ‘Good health adds life to years’ the WHO hopes to illuminate both the changing age distribution in our global population and the need for us to dispel negative stereotypes about the elderly, misconceptions which often focus upon older peoples’ health and healthcare.

The WHO predicts that ‘the number of people aged 80 years will almost quadruple between now and 2050’ and that ‘within the next five years, the number of adults aged 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of 5.’ Incredible figures, which show us not only how our health is improving globally but how our healthcare will become increasingly more focused towards older people in the future.

As people become older, and as older people become a larger proportion of the population, it casts a light on our conceptions of ‘old’ and ‘healthy’. Indeed, older people are susceptible to a number of health problems but old age itself isn’t equal to poor health or a lack of mental, physical and social abilities as cultural stereotypes often present.

AgeUK states in its 2012 report that 61% of people felt that discrimination on the grounds of age was widespread and that “there has been no improvement in the area of dignity in hospital care with the latest in-patient survey showing that over one in five older people say that they are not always treated with dignity and respect.”

Stereotypes surrounding older people include that all older people experience senility and that the elderly are less deserving of healthcare. Although the risks of dementia are far increased in the over 60s, the signs of dementia are not a normal part of aging. Furthermore, the right to equal healthcare does not diminish as we age, yet treatable conditions are often misconstrued as ‘normal’, tolerable, parts of aging.

The misconceptions which surround health and old age unfairly misrepresent the elderly, their capabilities, their personalities and their lifestyles and cause people to worry more about loved ones aging and getting older themselves. It’s true that being older does present unique risks to your health, yet when I think about my grandparents now (in their ‘80s) they still seem just as capable and vibrant as ever; My Grandma is a vegan facebook user who savours a beer on Saturdays and my Granddad enjoys riding his motorcycles, playing the organ and entertaining the waitresses at the local café with his stories.

It seems the increased age of the planet’s population presents both a new focus for the field of healthcare and a distinct need for a positive social shift in our conception of aging- with that in mind please enjoy this video of 100-year old Fauja Singh crossing the finish line of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon:

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