Caring for Asia's Growing Elderly Population

What is Asia going to do with its rapidly aging population? Rapidly improving medical care, better diets and social safety nets mean that the so-called “homo hundred” – a term used to describe people living more than 100 years – will rise rapidly, meaning countries that provide little in the way of social services for the elderly now will be forced to take on new challenges for which most do not appear to be prepared.

It doesn’t just mean providing food and beds for the elderly. As in Japan, intensive research is going into life extension science, which includes anti-aging medicine research, IT, chemistry and lifestyle development. At the base are daily supervision and early detection of problems to keep aged subjects healthy, as well as programs to keep them occupied and fulfilled.

These were duties that, in an Asia with strong family values and ties, were in the past taken up by the children of the aged. But as in the industrialized world, younger couples are starting to live by themselves. A long ago as 2003, researcher Stella R. Quah, in a report prepared for the United Nations Program on the Family in the Division for Social Policy and Development, wrote that “In traditional societies, the close proximity to kin was considered a valuable feature of one’s home both in terms of physical and economic security.” But, Quah there has been a progressive decline in the average size of households in all 10 of the Asian nations she studied. As the societies grow wealthier, that decline is inevitably going to accelerate, leaving governments more and more with the job of taking care of the elderly.

Some are better prepared than others. China is not one of them, although it has lately begun to start building a social safety net. But “as the ratio of the elderly to the working age population grows [in China], the need for senior care is unlikely to be met by the public sector,” according to a study by China Knowledge Wharton, a publication of the Wharton School. “By the end of 2010, China had only 3.5 million beds in 101,000 public senior care facilities—enough to provide for less than 2 percent of its elderly.”

Overwhelmed, the government is welcoming foreign and private investors to provide other options for senior care. Michael Qu, a lawyer at the Shanghai Co-Effort Law Firm, estimates that the senior care market may grow to RMB 1.8 trillion by 2020 and RMB 7.6 trillion by 2050, from the current estimated RMB 1 trillion.

China is hardly alone. The second-longest lived people on the planet – after Monaco – are in Macau at 84.4 years, but Macanese are only marginally longer lived than those in Japan and Singapore, both over 84. Hong Kongers live to be 82.2 years. South Korea is catching up fast, at 81.3 years – astonishingly more than triple the lifespan of the average Korean in 1903. South Korea is expected to become the fastest-aging country in the world by 2028.

In Japan, which may be better prepared than any country in Asia, 11.4 percent of the population are over 75, the world’s highest proportion. This change, known as kōreikashakai, will have taken place over a shorter time span than in any other country. The Japanese Society of Anti-Aging Medicine was established in 2001 to collect health data on the effect of exercise by walking, why medical fees for farmers are lower compared to non-farmers, current calorie restriction and anti-oxidation and other information as well as studying anti-aging medicines.

In South Korea, Samsung Economic Research Institute analyst Kang Chan-Koo wrote that “There are expectations that life extension science, also known as anti-aging medicine, together with lifestyle, chemistry and IT developments, will help mitigate the burdens attached to a graying nation. Research and technological development so far sum up anti-aging in three areas: daily prevention, early care and use of devices.”

That involves daily intervention with the elderly, pushing them into everyday habits and exercise, inducing mild amounts of stress that trigger biological responses that activate a person’s immune system. One of the biggest advantages is that injections or medical procedures are not needed.

One of the buzzwords is “hormesis,” which calls for alternating between normal eating and weekly or semiweekly fasting. The fasting, Kang writes, stimulates the body’s metabolism and boosts the immune system. The positive impact of hormesis on anti-aging has been proven through testing with monkeys, whose spinal curvature was less pronounced, their fur was richer and they had lower rates of death, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and atrophy of the brain.

It is important to take active steps when initial signs of aging appear, to guard against the so-called “frailty syndrome,” which includes weakening muscle strength, lowered energy levels, weight loss and deterioration of the senses. These problems are now being viewed more as quasi-disorders that should be aggressively countered rather than inevitable disabilities.

Initially developed for physical rehabilitation of civilians and military personnel, assistive technology has now become a vital tool to help senior citizens to regain full mobility, Kang writes. “Through developments, traditional assistive technology such as hearing aids are transforming into higher value-added industries. Expectations are also high for the recently commercialized exoskeleton, which helps compensate for loss of muscle strength. By wearing an exoskeleton, tasks such as lifting heavy objects become possible and mobility become easier, allowing for more productive and even leisurely activities.

“Governments must accept that countermeasures to population aging will determine the fate of the national economy and seriously consider fostering aging-based science and technology research,” Kang continues. “Aging is a combination of complex symptoms that influence the human race, lifestyles, the environment etc. therefore research in other countries cannot be taken at face value but must be modified and researched again taking into consideration the unique characteristics of each country.

These large aging populations present an opportunity for companies to explore new business opportunities. Anti-aging and regenerative medicine is the fastest growing medical specialty throughout the world, according to Lindsay Steel, writing in Life Extension Magazine. “This exciting branch of medicine is founded on the application of advanced technologies for the early detection, prevention, treatment, and reversal of age-related disorders and diseases.”

To respond to the growing demand, both government and private sector must join forces to respond to aging and foster the anti-aging industry New research into anti-aging and anti-aging technologies must be continuously monitored and more items that can act in synergy with other products must be planned and developed.