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Study Calls For New Aging Measurement

September 13, 2010

A study suggests that the cost of old age on health services in industrialized nations may need to be re-measured.

Researchers say that rising life expectancies and improved health has lead to the population aging slower.

The scientists from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, Stony Brook University (SBU) and in the United States and the Vienna Institute of Demography found a new way of measuring aging, which is not reliant on fixed chronological ages.

The team said the current method of measuring aging has been based on misleading information.

“Most of our information about aging comes from indicators published by the United Nations and statistical agencies,” Professor Warren Sanderson from IIASA and SBU told BBC.

“These indicators, which are used worldwide to determine health care and retirement costs, are based on chronological age and in many instances consider people as being old when they reach age 65 or even earlier,” he said.

Traditionally, the number of people aged over 65 to people of working age was used to assess the burden to the society of supporting elderly people.

The increase of that ratio reflects the growing burden of the aging population on the pensions system.

However, the scientists said that because people live longer this measure is now out of date.

The same problem is evident if policy makers use the old-age dependency ratio as an indicator of the burden of aging on health care costs.

Most health care costs take place in the last few years of life and these years happen at even later ages of life as expectancies increase.

The scientists reported in the magazine Science that they developed a new dependency measure called the adult disability dependency ratio (ADDR).

It is based on disabilities that reflect the relationship between those who need care and those who are capable of caring for others.

Their study has found that if aging is measured based on this ratio, then the speed of aging is reduced by four-fifths compared to the conventional old-age dependency ratio.

The authors say that these methods of measurement have policy implications because:  “slow and predictable changes in pension age justified by an increased number of years of healthy life at older ages may be more politically acceptable than large, abrupt changes justified on the basis of budget stringency.”

The normal pension age is expected to increase from 65 to 67 in the U.S. by 2027.

Population aging will be the source of many challenges for the future.

“But there is not reason to exaggerate those challenges through miss measurement,” says the study.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director for Age UK, told BBC: “This study clearly shows viewing older people simply as a ‘burden to society,’ is an out-of-date concept.

“On the contrary, increasing longevity and improved health care mean many older people are able to make a very positive and important contribution to our society.”

“At the same time,” she added, “it’s important to remember that while life expectancy is increasing, people are living with disabilities for longer than before and a huge gap in life expectancy remains between rich and poor people.”

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