Man holding a surfboard looking out toward the ocean

For the first time in human history, the world will be inhabited by more people over the age of 65 than under 18. What does this Great Age Wave mean and what are the implications?

Though the ratio varies by country, the reality is that the world as a whole is facing the “Great Age Wave”.

While this may surprise some, Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified family physician, geriatrician and Director of Geriatric Cognitive Health at the Pacific Brain Health Center, Pacific Neuroscience Institute, continues to educate his patients, caregivers, and the community on what this demographic shift will mean for the future.

How Did We Get Here?

Doctor holding dementia patient’s hand

According to Dr. Kaiser, there are several factors that have played a role in bringing about “The Great Age Wave”, the most important being an increased life expectancy. The World Health Report 1998 marked the global life expectancy at birth as 66 years and projected it to reach to 73 years by 2025. Furthermore, the WHO expects thousands born at the end of the 20th century to live through the 21st century and see the start of the 22nd century. Such a staggering prediction is underscored by the fact that the largest group in the aging population are those over the age of 80.

Advances in the improvement of public health remains the main reason for the increased life expectancy. In many parts of the world, people are no longer dying from infectious illnesses that we are preventing through proper plumbing and sanitation. In addition to public health measures, advances in medicine have helped to curb the spread of disease with vaccines and also treat them with medicines like antibiotics.

The second factor, a cohort effect, the aging of our population can largely be attributed to the arrival of the Baby Boomers. The Pew Research Center reports that with the aging of the Baby Boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, about 10,000 people have been turning 65 each day since 2011 and will continue to do so at this rate.

Finally, a declining birth rate in developed countries, where lifestyle choices and rising cost of raising children have played major roles in family planning, has further contributed to this great age wave and has resulted in an “inversion of the population pyramid”—where you have less young people at the base and more and more older people towards the top.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. birthrate has fallen four years in a row and the number of people born in the U.S. is at its lowest since 1986. At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that those aged 65 and older will reach 83.7 million by 2050, almost double from the 2012 level of 43.1 million.

These statistics are daunting and can stoke the fear of an oncoming “Silver Tsunami”, as this phenomenon is sometimes referred to, but Dr. Kaiser believes there is more than meets the eye with this demographic shift.

Why this isn’t a Silver Tsunami

Senior couple walking along beach together

For many, this demographic shift is considered a Silver Tsunami as people contemplate the potential burden of an overwhelming number of people retiring, collecting social security, placing human and economic demands on the medical system, and the like.

However, Dr. Kaiser makes it a point not to refer to it in this way.

He explains the two reasons he takes issue with the term: “First, a tsunami is something that takes you by surprise and that you really cannot prepare for; on the contrary, this demographic shift has long been predicted and something we can count on to occur with great reliability—like clockwork! We have known about this for years; people have been preparing for this since the 1960s.

Second, tsunamis are destructive forces, not only taking us by surprise but leaving massive devastation in their wake. While people may frame the aging population in such a negative light, with foresight and preparation, our new longevity should come as a great blessing, not a curse. The 30-plus-year gain in life expectancy over the last century represents the culmination of some of our greatest human achievements; focusing now on adding not only years to our life, but life to those years, we may all reap the benefits!”

Quote "Our new longevity should come as a great blessing, not a curse."Instead of focusing on the medical and economic strain an aging population may pose, society should look at what an amazing asset older people can be. Dr. Kaiser explains that, in a way, the aging population is the world’s only increasing natural resource and one that should be a great asset.

The greater access to individuals with wisdom, experience, and perspective, Dr. Kaiser suggests, in and of itself may be a great benefit to society and a key to addressing complex challenges.

Beyond that Dr. Kaiser adds, as we seek ways “to tap into the value of the great age wave, finding ways to support older adults in remaining engaged and enjoying a greater sense of purpose, we can begin to maximize our human potential.” Pointing out that social connection, volunteering, creative engagement, and having a sense of purpose are factors that both directly support healthy aging and make for healthy communities. “This is the path to a whole range of win-win solutions benefiting all generations,” Dr. Kaiser concludes.

The Great Age Wave

Dr. Kaiser acknowledges that while aging is something we can embrace, he is not denying the potential challenges. He recognizes, for example, that the majority of people over the age of  65 suffer from multiple chronic conditions and on average have costlier and more complex medical needs. However, he underscores that many of these chronic conditions are preventable or manageable.

Beach chair and umbrella in the sandWhat does he suggest? A change in perspective; advancing efforts for example, that transform our “sick care” system that is too often narrowly focused on treating acute disease to a healthcare system that prioritizes prevention and supports our well-being.

Preparing for an older world, our new reality, will undoubtedly require great investment—monetary and beyond. Focusing on the things that matter most, leveraging the experience, desires, and needs, of our elders, transforming the world to leave it a better place, we may realize great benefits.

Long visible on the horizon, the Great Age Wave is upon us. Now is the time to get ready, jump in, and enjoy the ride!

For more information about healthy aging programs at Pacific Brain Health Center, contact us at 310-582-7461 or schedule a consultation.

Read more articles in this new “Great Age Wave” series.

Nikki Mena

Nicolette Mena is the PNI Foundation Program Coordinator and is involved with all administrative and operational aspects of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute Foundation. She focuses on raising awareness of PNI, through composition of blog posts, video appeals, newsletters, and materials for the bi-annual magazine. Fundraising is Nikki’s priority, with her efforts geared toward grant writing and coordination of outreach events. She works closely with medical experts, Saint John’s Health Center Foundation’s development team and PNI Foundation’s Directors to expand PNI’s brand both domestically and internationally.

Scott A. Kaiser, MD

Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified family physician and geriatrician, is the Director of Geriatric Cognitive Health and provides specialty geriatric medical consultations at the Pacific Brain Health Center. Focused on the needs of older patients, he works with his colleagues to provide an integrated and holistic approach to their cognitive challenges. With this “whole person” approach, Dr. Kaiser works to connect patients and their families with a broad range of resources to support their overall health and well-being. In addition, Dr. Kaiser is Chief Innovation Officer at the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF), a charitable organization serving members of the entertainment industry community. In this role, Dr. Kaiser leads efforts to improve population health and well-being through social and community-based interventions that aim to support people in living and aging well.