How an Aging Population Can Become a Driver of Growth

By Jason Sadler, President Cigna International Markets Published on Mar. 04, 2019

For the first time in recorded history, most people in the world can expect to live into their 60s and beyond, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It seems like an appropriate time to reflect on this amazing achievement and what it really means to society and the economy.

The over-60s represent a powerful wave of potential and opportunity. 
The over-60s represent a powerful wave of potential and opportunity. Age is not reducing their influence; it’s simply changing the way they live as leaders, learners, workers, and consumers. A longer life brings opportunities, not only for older people and their families but for society as a whole. 

Yet the extent of these opportunities and contributions depends heavily on an important factor: health. 

Health systems need to prepare for an older population 

We’re all familiar with the gloomy predictions of how older adults will be unable to afford their increasing medical costs and become a burden on society. And there’s no arguing with the fact that the elderly are more at risk from chronic diseases affecting the heart, brain, and lungs, as well osteoarthritis and dementia.

It’s been estimated there will be a shortage of 12.9 million healthcare workers by 2035. 

Overall, the cost of health care is increasing around the world as governments struggle with efficient healthcare delivery for the young as well as aging.  It’s been estimated there will be a shortage of 12.9 million healthcare workers by 2035.  Findings like these – if not addressed now – will have serious implications for the health of billions of people across all regions of the world.  This is why organizations like WHO are calling for local and national health systems to become better prepared to address the needs of older people, who often have multiple conditions.

The Asian Development Bank recently asked for countries to close the gap between growing population coverage and adequacy of benefits. When the financial benefits of health insurance and welfare assistance are insufficient and are not adjusted for inflation, this is followed by economic insecurity. This equally applies to pensions, particularly for poorer and more vulnerable groups.

Family support systems are waning

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The results from this year’s annual Cigna 360o Well-Being Survey reveal an unsurprising but worrying trend. Most respondents, especially in Asia, expect to receive support from their family in old age rather than help from professional caregivers. Those in Indonesia and Thailand have the strongest expectation that children will take care of them, while South Korea was among the lowest. 

The tradition of mature children taking care of elderly parents in Asia is still the norm. However, these norms may be changing because of record low birth rates in some geographies, along with migration trends where older children move elsewhere leaving their parents behind at home. In countries like South Korea, there is widespread awareness that family size has already substantially declined with increased migration for education and employment opportunities. 

How well prepared are we for old age?

Respondents to the survey were also asked how well prepared they will be financially in older age. Half the respondents said they will be ready for old age one way or the other. Based on the results, it also appears that this is largely due to them taking positive action.  Those who felt they are ready financially are more likely to go for regular health checkups and are saving money for the future. About a quarter of the people polled intend to cover medical costs through their health insurance as they age.

However, that leaves a large proportion of the population unprepared for increasing costs.

Primary health care at the heart of health

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This is why, for starters, primary health care system reform should be the top priority for developing and developed countries alike. The public and private sector need to work together to find ways to offer comprehensive health care and health care insurance at affordable prices for all ages. Cigna has been looking at the issue of health care in later life for several years and, as a result, they have specialized health care products for older adults in places like South Korea and Hong Kong.  

Of course, digitalization of health care – innovations like telemedicine, remote diagnostics and monitoring, wearables, and the huge choice of health apps – are beginning to have a major positive impact on healthcare. They can be hugely beneficial for older adults who may become less mobile as the years progress. 

Staying social in older age

However, it’s also important to remember that being older does not only affect physical health. About one-third of the respondents to the survey reveal they have a fear of not being visible in old age, as social circles shrink, and mobility becomes an issue.  It’s important for older adults to maintain existing social networks and build new ones. An active life and social network outside of the home and workplace is important when transitioning into a visible and happy old age.

Cigna runs an online member community for the over 50s in South Korea called Heyday, which promotes social well-being, lifestyle and travel and financial security. We also own GrownUps, a lifestyle website and social club for over 50 year olds in New Zealand.

The smart choice

Health care for older people is often viewed as a cost to society. However, it should be viewed as an investment. Better accessibility and affordability can enable people to continue making positive contributions as they age.

If the societal benefits are not convincing enough, it also makes perfect sense from an economic standpoint. It’s important that older people remain in the workforce for as long as they want and are active in their leisure time – their income increases along with spending power and tax revenues. A country’s GDP rises, so everyone wins.

We all have an important role to play when it comes to the issue of aging. Through a measured approach to health care provision and insurance, the public and private sectors can help this huge sector of the population become a vehicle for global growth and societal advancement.

About Cigna

Cigna Corporation (NYSE:CI) is a global health service company dedicated to improving the health, well-being and peace of mind for those we serve. Cigna delivers choice, predictability, affordability and quality care through integrated capabilities and connected, personalized solutions that advance whole person health.