Bringing commitments to life: five steps for the UK Government in promoting global health for all ages
Age International’s Ken Bluestone and Kayla Arnold explain why a new approach to international development is key to meeting the health needs of older people around the world.
We are already past the halfway point to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and it’s now crucial that development not only gets back on track but is truly inclusive for all ages. In 2023 the UK Government released its White Paper on International Development, which fell short of recognising the multi-generational world we live in and addressing the realities of population ageing. At the same time the UK joined other governments worldwide in committing to achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC), which explicitly includes the needs and rights of older people and people with disabilities. England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, also focused his annual report on Health in an Ageing Society, which highlights many of the issues and challenges to healthy ageing.
The report is by and large an optimistic one. It acknowledges living longer is an achievement and recognises there are opportunities to help ensure later life does not have to mean spending long periods living with ill health or disability. The report challenges the idea that the majority of older people will require a significant amount of care and support. It highlights how many older people continue to enjoy good health, and how those who may be unwell can maintain their independence for as long as possible. However, the report rightly recognises the urgent need to plan as the population ages. The focus is not on increasing the number of years lived but improving the quality of later life. This approach needs to be taken forward in how the UK Government addresses its commitments to global health and international development.
"Maximising the health, and therefore the life chances, of older adults should be seen as a major national priority, and one where we can make very significant progress often with relatively straightforward interventions."
At Age International, we embrace the goal of healthy ageing captured by the UN Decade for Healthy Ageing (2020-2030), which also aligns with achieving the SDGs. Chris Whitty’s report shows us that the needs and rights of older people must be taken into account to achieve this. Whilst the report has a domestic focus on England, the basic issues it presents relate to older people across the globe:
- older people have the right to health, like everyone else, but often face greater barriers to accessing services that meet their needs.
- health systems are predominantly oriented towards specialised single-condition approaches. This means that the multiple chronic illnesses that can often affect people as they age, such as hypertension, arthritis and diabetes, as well as frailty, are not addressed effectively.
- preventative approach is necessary to both improve quality of life for older people and reduce pressure on health and care systems.
- stopping or pushing back the onset of chronic conditions is key.
- social and environmental factors contribute to inequalities in health, such as the impact of poverty, deprivation, and other risk factors.
- mental health needs in later life are rising.
- older people are often left out of data and research.
It is not just England’s population that is ageing – this is a global trend affecting countries around the world. Whilst the UK Government’s White Paper on International Development fails to recognise this sufficiently, their Global Health Strategy identified non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – chronic illnesses that affect older people the most – as one of the greatest challenges of this century.
What is needed is a new approach to international development that fully takes on board the journey we all go through as we age.
We live in a multi-generational world with an increasing number of older people. Globally 1.4 billion people will be aged 60 and over by 2030. By 2050, this figure will rise to 2.1 billion, meaning older people will make up more than one-fifth of the world’s total population, with up to 80 percent of older people living in low and middle-income countries.
The choices we make earlier in life have an enormous impact on our ability to stay healthy later on. It’s in this context that older people actively contribute to their families, communities and their economies, yet their basic right to health is often denied.
The fundamental message of Chris Whitty’s report – and the Government’s international commitments to achieving the SDGs and Universal Health Coverage – is that healthy ageing is not optional. It goes to the core of ensuring a better life for all people of all ages. It also makes for more effective international development. The Government has an opportunity to share the lessons it has learned about ageing in the UK with other countries.
Five steps for the UK government
Following the release of the report, Age International will continue to campaign for UK Government action on older people’s health around the world. We recommend the Government takes these next steps:
- Embrace a new approach to international development that recognises the contributions, needs and rights of people of all ages and delivers healthcare fit for increasingly ageing populations.
Apply the core principles of health equity and the SDG principle of reaching the furthest behind first. Older people need to be included in the UK’s work on global health and health system strengthening.
Integrate an approach to global health that recognises the ability to improve health for all and puts into practice the UK’s international commitments to achieving Universal Health Coverage for all.
Invest in better data collection and analysis to further understand older people’s experiences and improve the impact of international development support.
Include forward-thinking strategies in global health policies to address current and future health needs in low and middle-income countries. This can be achieved by focusing on chronic diseases and creating a clear roadmap that leads to the 2025 High Level Meeting on NCDs and beyond.
Ken Bluestone is Head of Policy and Influencing at Age International. Kayla Arnold was Policy Adviser between May 2022 and December 2023.
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