The Age of China

The Mailman School plans a global summit to rethink global aging at the population level

September 20, 2016

The most populous nation on the planet has one of the fastest-growing numbers of older residents. By the year 2050, China will be home to as many as 330 million people over age 60—more than double the current number. The implications of so dramatic a shift will reverberate through every sector of Chinese life, from social services to family structure, from health care to employment. Beginning on October 17, an international roster of experts will gather in Shanghai to address aging in China and around the world at the Columbia-Fudan Global Summit on Aging and Health.

Co-sponsored by Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, the three-day conference will examine recommendations for investments by all sectors to maximize longer lives and explore research into the lives of older populations—among the most fertile areas of public health. Over the last 20 years, a body of evidence has emerged to guide policymakers, healthcare providers, urban planners, and others to engage rapidly aging populations and create health systems that serve populations across the lifecourse. Even in this robust field of study, China presents special opportunities. Because of its size and strong public health sector, China’s success maximizing the social capital of older people could serve as a template to rethink global aging at the population level.

“Great research universities are at their best when they are mindful of their role in the broader world and direct their unique capacities to the challenges of global society,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger.  “In the decades to come, humankind’s fate will be determined, in part, by our success in reimagining the potential of older adults.  We are proud to join with Fudan University in this important endeavor and to have Dr. Linda Fried, the dean of our Mailman School of Public Health and a world-renowned geriatrician, helping to lead the Global Summit.”

The Summit comes at a time when demography is increasingly regarded as destiny in those countries that recognize its influence. Declining mortality rates and increased longevity have brought many nations to enjoy “demographic dividends” that lead to great social benefit. Some countries, including China and the United States, are approaching the “third demographic dividend,” the phase when a healthy older population has the capacity to devote energy to communitarian needs. Knowledge about realizing the third demographic dividend will be the Summit’s chief focus.

“China’s Global Summit is at a watershed moment for the science of healthy aging,” said Linda P. Fried, Dean of the Mailman School and an expert in promoting health and preventing disease in older populations. “The success of global health to create longer, healthier lives, and to design health systems attuned to the needs of older adults, can now serve as the basis for policies and practices across all sectors.”

Of course, longer lifespans are not just a Chinese phenomenon. Most countries must address surging populations of older citizens. In the developed world, longevity has increased by 30 years over the last century. In developing countries, that same jump took only 40 years. In an increasingly globalized society, whole nations are in active pursuit of best practices to meet the needs of older populations and optimize their health to reap social, economic, and cultural benefit.

Co-sponsored by Fudan University in Shanghai, the Global Summit will explore critical topics in global aging, including age-friendly workplaces, lifespan psychology, and novel roles for older adults. More than 300 attendees will learn from experts representing a mix of Chinese and American universities, multilateral agencies, industry, and civil society.

With a demand for new national models, China will be able to integrate the needs of the elderly in areas where they have never before been as important—for example, incorporating geriatric science and social work into social systems and retirement planning. As a nation with the capacity to build massive residential facilities to meet the needs of this growing demographic, China may be the first to put medical support, home care, and recreational facilities for the elderly under one roof, and then scale them to meet the enormous demand of its population.

Success in addressing the needs of the elderly—for both the United States and China—will be largely a result of the ability to prevent chronic disease. Limiting exposure to conditions such as heart disease and hypertension becomes even more important as populations age. The Summit will examine new roles for older people that offer opportunities to preserve mental acuity while providing societal benefit. Among these opportunities is Experience Corps, a program Dean Fried created in which older people serve as primary school volunteers, providing resources to young people in need while enjoying health benefits generated from their altruistic engagement, a synergy Dean Fried calls a “win-win-win” for older and younger people and for the community at-large.

Opening remarks will be delivered by Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Osotimehin placed this critical issue on the world stage in “Ageing in the 21st Century: A Celebration and a Challenge,” the UNFPA’s first comprehensive report on the subject. Other keynote speakers include Chen Zhu, vice chairman, Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress; David H. Rank, deputy chief of mission, U.S. Embassy Beijing; and Robert Xiao, CEO of Perfect World, which has sought ways to encourage mental fitness in older adults through online gaming.

“The wisdom garnered through decades of healthy aging research will be enormously valuable as China, and all countries, seek to create a third demographic dividend,” Fried said. “Public health professionals have contributed to greater global understanding that improving health for the world’s aging population yields benefits for all.”