A Pew Research study show that by 2050, more than 1.5 billion people worldwide will be over the age of 65—triple the number of present-day seniors. And while the U.S. ranks high on the aging populations’ scorecard, Japan, South Korea, Spain and Italy top the list. By midcentury, a third of their populations will be over 65.
The challenges inherent in aging populations, particularly during times of economic hardship, are well documented. Perhaps the biggest issue is the inability of younger generations to support the healthcare and retirement needs of a ballooning older population. Alzheimer's disease makes these needs much greater and may result in an "aging crisis."
We must surmount these challenges. When people grow old productively, they can be a vital and vibrant part of society’s fabric.
All generations deserve the opportunity to contribute to society in a meaningful way. When older people remain productive, it’s a win for all involved—older people continue to lead lives with deep significance, and society benefits from their wealth of wisdom and experience.
When older people contribute to the economy—either as paid workers or skilled volunteers—they become less dependent on benefits such as Medicare and Social Security. And contrary to popular belief, younger people don’t lose out on job opportunities when older people remain in the workforce. Most economists believe that the economy naturally expands when new groups join the labor force or existing groups remain active. (Consider how the job market adapted when women entered the workforce in droves during World War II.)
As Dr. Linda Fried of Columbia University has demonstrated, volunteer contributions can also be enormously beneficial in an aging society. In 1993, Fried launched the Experience Corps, bringing trained seniors into low-income elementary schools to serve as mentors. The benefits were apparent almost immediately: older people experienced improvements in their moods and health, and students performed better academically and behaviorally.
The Importance of Brain Health
Productivity in later years also has benefits for brain health. A study led by Michelle Carlson and funded by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation demonstrated that Experience Corps volunteers had short-term gains in their executive function, more activity in their prefrontal cerebral cortexes, and experienced less brain shrinkage.
And brain health is critical for productive aging. We can create more work opportunities for seniors, prevent heart disease and strokes, and keep them physically healthy. But if we cannot protect brain health, none of that matters.
Today, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of functional disability in people over the age of 75. Without effective treatments for Alzheimer’s, we can only take healthy, productive aging so far.
Together, we can transform the potential aging crisis into an aging opportunity. But it's only possible if we conquer Alzheimer's.