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Healthy ageing is more than the absence of disease: Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh

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WHO’s new global data portal on health and well-being of older people to be launched on UN International Day of Older Persons, October 1

October 1 is marked as UN International Day of Older Persons to promote healthy ageing across the world and this year, it marks the first day of the Decade of Healthy Ageing, a WHO-supported UN initiative to bring together governments, civil society and other stakeholders and partners to promote healthy ageing across the world, including in the WHO South-East Asia Region.
In her message, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia draws attention to the fact that the global population is ageing, and the Region’s is no exception. “The proportion of people in the Region over the age of 60 is currently more than 10 per cent, which is expected to double over the next three decades. By 2050 the proportion of people in the Region over the age of 80 is expected to triple, from 1 per cent to 3 per cent. This demographic shift is largely the result of concerted public health action and improvements in health system functioning that have increased access to family planning and significantly reduced mortality from childhood and communicable diseases.”
To meet the challenge of an ageing world and Region, she mentions that the WHO continues to support countries to promote healthy ageing via a multi-sectoral, whole-of-society approach. “As WHO’s Global strategy and action plan on ageing and health emphasises, healthy ageing is about more than the absence of disease. Rather, it must include the active fostering of older people’s intrinsic capacity and functional ability so they can do what they value. The Region’s Framework on Healthy Ageing, which was adopted in 2018, highlights seven strategic elements that Member States have integrated into national strategies and plans. Key interventions include creating age-friendly environments, aligning health systems to the needs of older people and developing sustainable and equitable systems for long-term care.”
Dr Khetrapal Singh mentions that countries in the Region are increasingly focused on implementing WHO’s Integrated Care of Older People (ICOPE) framework, which provides comprehensive guidance on how primary health care providers can screen, assess and manage a range of health problems, from non-communicable diseases such as dementia to key functional impediments. To facilitate this, WHO has supported the carrying out of feasibility studies and has developed a series of training materials that will strengthen the capacity of physicians and nurses to provide the necessary care. “As together we embark on this Decade of Healthy Ageing, we must sustain and accelerate the implementation of the regional Framework and the ICOPE, which will advance progress on achieving universal health coverage, the Region’s Flagship Priorities, WHO’s “triple billion” targets and Sustainable Development Goal 3.”
As WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, she comments on the impact of COVID-19 on the region, pointing out that the pandemic continues to cause disproportionate morbidity and mortality among older people across the world and in the Region. Globally, the case fatality rate is around 3.5 per cent for all ages but is around 12 per cent for those aged 65 and older. In addition to the risk provided by the virus itself, older people have in recent months experienced challenges in accessing the health care they rely on to stay healthy and well. Telemedicine has proven highly effective in overcoming such challenges and must continue to be leveraged as part of the Region’s focus on maintaining essential health services, highlighted in its recently adopted Declaration on the Collective Response to COVID-19. It is imperative that when a safe and effective vaccine is developed older people and high-risk groups such as workers in health-care and other social care settings are provided first access.
She suggests that to accelerate efforts to promote healthy ageing, including across the Decade of Healthy Ageing priority areas, countries can carry out population-based longitudinal studies, for which strategies to establish cohorts that age naturally are needed. Such studies will provide vital information on the determinants of healthy ageing, both in individual countries and across the Region. India, Indonesia and Thailand have made strong progress and are each carrying out longitudinal ageing studies.
She comments that she is pleased that data from the first part of India’s study, which involves more than 70000 people aged 45 years or more, will soon be released, and will complement WHO’s new global data portal on the health and well-being of older people, which is being launched on this International Day of Older Persons.
As we begin the Decade of Healthy Ageing, she urges all governments, civil society and other stakeholders and partners in the Region to come together for ten years of concerted, catalytic and collaborative action to improve the lives of older people, their families and the communities in which they live. “WHO will continue to provide its steadfast support to this endeavour and to ensuring all countries can fully implement the regional Framework on Healthy Ageing and the ICOPE. Together we can achieve the future we want for present and coming generations. We must not only be wise. We must also be bold.”

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