What is healthy ageing?

What do we know about healthy aging?

Elderly people exercise at a public park in Hanoi, Vietnam, October 9, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Population ageing is poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century. One in nine people in the world is aged 60 or over, and by 2050, one in five people could be aged 60 or over. During 2015-2030, the number of old persons is forecast to surge 56 percent, from 901 million to 1.4 billion. By 2030, persons aged 60 or above will outnumber people aged 15-24.

So, what is healthy ageing?

World Health Organization defines healthy ageing as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables wellbeing in older age.” 

Every person – in every country in the world – should have the opportunity to live a long and healthy life. Yet, the environments in which we live can favour health or be harmful to it. Environments are highly influential on our behaviour, our exposure to health risks (for example, air pollution or violence), our access to quality health and social care and the opportunities that ageing brings.

Healthy ageing is about creating the environments and opportunities that enable people to be and do what they value throughout their lives. Everybody can experience healthy ageing. Being free of disease or infirmity is not a requirement for healthy ageing, as many older adults have one or more health conditions that, when well controlled, have little influence on their wellbeing.

What is functional ability and how does it relate to healthy ageing?

Functional ability is about having the capabilities that enable all people to be and do what they have reason to value. This includes a person’s ability to:

  • meet their basic needs;
  • learn, grow and make decisions;
  • be mobile;
  • build and maintain relationships; and
  • contribute to society.

Functional ability consists of the intrinsic capacity of the individual, relevant environmental characteristics and the interaction between them.

Intrinsic capacity comprises all the mental and physical capacities that a person can draw on and includes their ability to walk, think, see, hear and remember. The level of intrinsic capacity is influenced by several factors such as the presence of diseases, injuries and age-related changes.

Environments include the home, community and broader society, and all the factors within them such as the built environment, people and their relationships, attitudes and values, health and social policies, the systems that support them and the services that they implement. Being able to live in environments that support and maintain one’s intrinsic capacity and functional ability is key to healthy ageing.

What are the key considerations for healthy ageing?

Diversity: There is no typical older person. Some 80-year-olds have levels of physical and mental capacity that compare favourably with 30-year-olds. Others of the same age may require extensive care and support for basic activities like dressing and eating. Policy should be framed to improve the functional ability of all older people, whether they are robust, care dependent or in between.

Inequity: A large proportion (approximately 75%) of the diversity in capacity and circumstance observed in older age is the result of the cumulative impact of advantage and disadvantage across people’s lives. Importantly, the relationships we have with our environments are shaped by factors such as the family we were born into, our sex, ethnicity, level of education and financial resources.

How does healthy ageing differ from active ageing?

Healthy ageing is the focus of WHO’s work on ageing between 2015 – 2030. Healthy ageing replaces the WHO’s previous focus on active ageing, a policy framework developed in 2002. Healthy ageing, like active ageing, emphasizes the need for action across multiple sectors and enabling older people to remain a resource to their families, communities and economies.