Globally, for the first time, there are more people over 65 than under five years of age. In Australia, the percentage of older people has tripled in less than a century and continues to grow.
These enduring global trends can largely be attributed to safer childbirth, fertility declines and improved medical treatments.
What implications does this “demographic time bomb” have for health and wellbeing?
Facts and stats
In 2017, 3.8 million Australians were aged 65 years and over, according to a survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. This comprises 15% of the population, compared to just 5% in 1937.
In the global scheme of things, that puts Australia about halfway between Papua New Guinea and Japan, countries with the smallest and largest proportions of older adults, respectively.
This growth is still in steep ascent, expected to reach 8.8 million older Australians by 2057 – more than one in five people – and 12.8 million, or one in four people, by 2097.
The profile of this older cohort itself is expected to shift upwards.
Two years ago, more than half of older adults were aged 65 to 74 while 13% were aged 85 and over. In less than 30 years it’s predicted that people in the 65 to 74 age bracket will drop while 20% of people over 85 will be alive.
This trend presents several social, financial and environmental challenges. Remaining healthy is an important means by which older adults can continue to contribute to the broader community’s social, cultural and economic fabric.
How healthy are we?
While nine in ten older adults said they can confide in someone outside their household and had access to support in times of crisis, their health behaviours do not look so encouraging.
Fruit and vegetable consumption didn’t fare too well either; like the rest of the population, less than one in ten older Australians reported eating the recommended serves of these highly nutritious foods each day.
And while one in eight people in this older cohort reported being engaged in employment, education or training, more than half reported experiencing stress – the most common causes being serious illness or loss of a loved one.
From challenges to opportunities
Ultimately, while researchers are on the hunt for ways to reverse aging, it is possible to stay healthy and productive while growing older. The Blue Zone regions, for instance, are home to record numbers of centenarians with low rates of chronic disease.
Some lifestyle factors they share in common include daily activity, regular relaxation, eating a diet rich in plant foods, only eating until 80% full, and maintaining supportive family and social networks.
Other solutions include being involved in work. Paid work can boost income and bring psychological benefits through social and mental engagement. Many businesses are recognising the need for a balanced workforce of younger and older employees.
Unpaid work, like volunteering, care work and artistic pursuits, also brings rewards. Connecting older and younger people can yield mutual benefits. Volunteering itself can bring a sense of competence and confidence, keep people active and prevent isolation.