Healthy aging policies a wise move for MENA governments

Healthy aging policies a wise move for MENA governments

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Demographic research can act as an early warning system for governments that wish to plan ahead and ensure the future resilience of their economies. The world is currently witnessing a bulge in aging populations, which will necessitate exorbitant public funding to secure an acceptable standard of living for the elderly in the coming decades. Thus, it is critical for decision-makers to manage evolving priorities by focusing on a full-fledged strategy that addresses healthy aging.

A deep dive into the demographic profile of the Arab world, published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, sheds light on the looming aging challenge facing the region. Experts estimate that, by 2030, the Arab region’s elderly population will increase to 49.6 million, making up 9.5 percent of the total population. By 2050, this figure is expected to surpass 102 million and people aged 60 years and above will constitute 15.1 percent of the population.

Strikingly, the Arab world will experience an even higher rate of aging from the year 2050 due to today’s sizable youth segment transitioning into old age. Meanwhile, life expectancy is estimated to reach 76.9 years by 2050, implying the need for interventions that improve the quality of the later stages of life.

Within these alarming seismic shifts in population demographics, policymakers will need to sift through some specific trends that are set to influence a whole set of critical levers, such as economic growth, productivity, pension systems, talent bases, living standards, consumption rates, housing market demands, social protection schemes, and healthcare provision.

In the coming era, the notion of healthy aging will take center stage in policy agendas. Currently, the Arab region is marred by a set of chronic diseases that are causing people to enjoy fewer years of healthy living. A report by the World Health Organization estimates that, in the Eastern Mediterranean region, chronic diseases — such as cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases — are considered the leading cause of death, causing 2.6 million deaths in 2016. By 2030, this figure is estimated to reach 3.8 million. As such, it will be increasingly important for governments to set up comprehensive surveillance systems to collect, analyze and interpret timely and sophisticated data on the prevalence and triggers of chronic diseases in order to formulate effective strategies.

Governments should raise the bar for healthcare systems to accommodate an influx of geriatric patients

Sara Al-Mulla

Many world-class public healthcare systems are focusing on early screening programs in order to detect early signs of chronic illnesses and address them before the associated challenges begin. At the same time, healthcare models of the future will likely revolve around preventive pathways that reduce or eliminate the emergence of chronic diseases. That is why governments are directing resources toward public health education programs that discuss overall strategies to improve healthy living. There is also the extraordinary transformation of urban spaces to accommodate new bicycling initiatives, green spaces and walkability projects to encourage physical activity and exercise.

Governments should raise the bar for healthcare systems to accommodate an influx of geriatric patients. Investing in breakthrough technologies and medical equipment will be key to accessing lifesaving services, such as diagnostics, treatments, medications and palliative care. Equally important is providing universal health coverage so as to ensure rapid and responsive treatments and services to patients in various geographical areas. At the same time, a marked progression in investments in geriatric research would need to be attained in order to continuously discover cutting-edge solutions that will improve the quality of life of elderly populations.

The Arab region should also focus on securing an ample health workforce that can keep up with the growing demands of the elderly population. This should include a broad spectrum of health workers — such as physicians, geriatric experts, nurses, physiotherapists, social workers and aged carers — that could, in one way or another, be responsible for caring for elderly patients. Improvements should be seen in countries’ ability to attract, train, retain and support healthcare workers to deliver excellent health and aged care services to their populations.

Another important theme to broach is that of the mental health of elderly populations. The WHO projects that more than 20 percent of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental or neurological disorder. Mental health issues among the elderly can be triggered by a number of health problems, in addition to distressing life experiences, such as the bereavement of loved ones, retirement, loneliness, abuse, and isolation.

As such, policymakers should design preemptive and responsive services to enhance mental well-being, including investing in the early diagnosis of chronic illnesses, promoting preventive interventions to avoid the need for long-term care, and training health providers in delivering quality mental health programs. On this note, social and community programs can deliver immense benefits to elevating well-being, such as remaining connected with family and friends, engaging in creative or cultural activities, pursuing lifelong learning programs, volunteering, and participating in community events.

Considering all these interesting aspects of healthy aging, it will be more important than ever to also shift the power to the people, pushing them to improve their own health. Self-management education programs are vital in promoting personal responsibility in preventing and managing chronic diseases. For instance, awareness programs can focus on sharing effective techniques to deal with pain, exercises for improving strength, early health screening, good nutrition, managing depression and stress, and healthy eating habits.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative for governments to roll out programs for people to be educated about financial security, as this has a profound impact on living well in later years. This will entail launching free online resources and tutorials on financial planning, educating people about planning for their retirement, and helping people own their homes as early as possible.

The opportunity is transformative for those governments that can act preemptively and pave the way to this new future.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at
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