Aging Populations in a Global Context

Until the very end of the last millennia, much of the world's population had an average expectancy of life less than half the potential years humans could live, namely about 120 years. Moreover, adolescents under age 15 were much more numerous than adults over age 60. This is changing very rapidly. Since 2000, in industrialized nations the older segment of the population has exceeded

Table 1. Some Demographic Comparisons Between More and Less Developed Regions

Population aged 60 years or older. Percentage of total population

Percentage 80 years or older

Potential Support Ratio (number of persons aged 15-64 years per aged 65 years or older)








More developed regions 19 33 16 27 5 2

Less developed regions 8 21 9 17 12 4

Least developed regions 5 12 7 10 18 8

Source: United Nations (1999). "Population Aging, 1999." United Nations, Population Division, Sales No. E.99.XIIII.11 Reprinted with permission.

those under age 15, a transformation to be replicated in other regions by 2050 (Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001). By 2030 most Third and Fourth World regions will still not have reached the level of "societal aging" now faced by North America, much of Europe, and Japan. However, "young/youthful" nations such as Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico will witness the oldest part of their population (over age 65) at least double—and even quadruple in the case of Indonesia.

Despite the oncoming rapidity of aging in many developing nations, their demographic profile, especially for the least developed nations, will still show a relatively youthful population by 2050 (see Table 1) and maintain a moderately high Potential Support Ratio (eight younger adults for each person over age 65). In some areas, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, the AIDS epidemic has caused the overall life expectancy to drop precipitously over the past 10 years and consequently has played havoc with traditional systems of intergenerational support and exchange (Sankar, Luborsky, Rwabuhemba, & Songwathana, 1998).

Population aging is of more demographic concern in the middle range countries ("less developed regions") which will see a near doubling of the portion of the elderly over age 80 occurring at the same time as a three-fold drop in the Potential Support Ratio. In Latin American and Asian nations in this category, by mid-century, populations will present a demographic aging profile that is similar to the one found in more developed nations today.

Such changes are already causing China to rethink some of its policy stressing patrilineal based family support and care of elders (Arnsberger et al., 2000; Ikels, 1997). Part of the reason for the rapid aging in such Third World nations is the dramatic drop in overall fertility rates. In Asia and Latin America birth rates have fallen about 50% during the period from 1965 to 1995, from 6 to 3 children per woman (Kinsella & Gist, 1995; World Bank, 1999). Over the first two decades of the 21st century, Mexico, Ghana, India, Indonesia, and most of the Caribbean nations will actually have minimal or even negative annual growth among 0-14 year olds, while persons over age 65 will grow at rates between 2.1% and 3.2% each year (World Bank, 1999). Such changes will have an enormous impact on the nature of communities which anthropologists study and force medical anthropologists to more seriously examine midlife and late adulthood.

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