Aging Priorities?

A recent report by the Population Division of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs has received a great deal of attention in recent days for its recommendations regarding the aging of the global population. This trend is partly the result of improved health, nutrition, and women’s status globally (resulting, for example, in changing expectations regarding motherhood and greater access to contraceptives and medical care). We can mostly agree that these changes are positive, but the result – a growing proportion of adults retired from the workforce and requiring specialized care as they age – has potentially negative implications that nations across the world will need to address sooner than later. In the United States, the population’s median age has already been rising, from 35.3 in 2000 to 37.2, as of the last national census conducted in 2010.

One issue to which states are giving particular attention is the growing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, which will only continue to increase as baby boomers age. Already over 30 states have adopted Alzheimer’s disease plans, and more, Rhode Island among them, have passed unfunded resolutions to develop such a strategy. These plans address areas as diverse as public awareness, early detection and diagnosis of the disease, provision of training and services, legal issues, and research (for a full breakdown of existing plans, see the Comparison Document produced by Alzheimer’s Association).

Alzheimer’s disease is a terminal illness with serious repercussions for patients’ and caretakers’ quality of life, so there is good cause for policy makers to take notice. At the same time, it is worth noting that the individual- and community-level challenges presented by this issue are neither new nor unique. Even with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, people across the country lack adequate access to the most basic level of health care, and workforce development, anti-poverty, and scientific research programs have long been underfunded. To the extent that the focus on such a narrow, if important, medical issue draws attention to some of these larger underlying problems in our society, then great. But I hope that other equally important health issues aren’t neglected because they happen to affect a less politically powerful demographic.