World Health Day: Urgent rethink needed on non-communicable diseases to safeguard world's ageing population

4 April 2012

World Health Day: Urgent rethink needed on non-communicable diseases to safeguard world's ageing population

For the first time in 60 years, the World Health Organization (WHO) will put global ageing first on 7 April, World Health Day. Today's global launch comes as leading commentators across the sector warn that population ageing will hamper hard fought achievements in socioeconomic and human development if action is not taken.

Low- and middle-income countries will experience the most rapid and dramatic demographic change, with the majority of older people living in low- or middle-income countries. By 2050, this number will increase to 80% of all older people. The number of people aged 60 and over today has doubled since 1980. Within the next five years, the number of adults aged 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of five.

The data released by the WHO today shows that NCDs are the leading cause of death in the world, causing 60% of all deaths. In poor countries, more older people die of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, which often develop at the same time, than infectious and parasitic diseases.

The interim data released from WHO's Stage study to mark World Health Day shows that across six countries, China, Ghana, India, Mexico, South Africa and the Russian Federation, 32-80% of people aged over 50 years have high blood pressure, while only 4-14% of them receive appropriate blood pressure-lowering medications. This is despite a wealth of evidence showing that treatment for the majority of these conditions is cheap and cost-effective.

These treatable conditions are often dismissed as just part of ageing. However, simply growing older should not cause pain and the right to healthcare, access to complex treatments or rehabilitation and secondary prevention of disease and disability must not diminish with age.

Consequently the need for long-term care is also rising. The number of older people who are no longer able to look after themselves in developing countries is forecast to quadruple by 2050. Many very old people lose their ability to live independently because of limited mobility, frailty or other physical or mental health problems.

As part of the global launch of World Health Day, Richard Blewitt, CEO of HelpAge International which is receiving the 2012 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the largest humanitarian prize in the world, for its work assisting and advocating for disadvantaged older people, and member of the WHO roundtable has issued the following statement:

"I applaud Margaret Chan as the first UN leader to provide genuine leadership on ageing. After 30 years of neglect, the World Health Organization is standing by their own commitment to avoid making the same mistake again.

"Today I am more confident than ever that the global community has begun to commit to a healthier future for our ageing population; but we are still worryingly slow to act.

"It is shocking that too many people still believe there is an age limit to good health. Today's WHO roundtable makes it clear that the right to good health services, particularly in low and middle income countries, is not guaranteed. Health systems are simply not designed to meet the rising, complex and chronic care needs of our ageing world. The burden of poor health is unevenly shared around the world.

"We need to rethink ageing. For anyone to live in chronic pain or to die too soon is tragic, but for this to be caused by common and highly preventable diseases, such as high blood pressure, is simply unacceptable. 

"In Ghana alone, nearly 60% of older people are hypertensive; often leading to strokes and heart attacks, yet a staggeringly low 5% control this through medication. WHO have shown us today that multidrug therapy through a "best buy" intervention would cost less than $1.00 per person per year in low-income countries - we must act to deliver this care.

"My call to the global community is to put older people at the heart of decision making. Age discrimination limits our ability to negotiate challenges ahead. Take Ghana; this week our campaigners will meet their Minister of Health and lead dedicated older activists, from over twenty countries, as part of our Age Demands Action campaign, fighting for better healthcare rights.

"Older people across our network have told me that prevention is not the only priority; diagnosis, management and proper care in later life play a major role in ensuring quality of life for older people with chronic illness. This year we must not let key opportunities to make astute investment into ageing slip away; HelpAge International will be watching."


Full global health and ageing briefing:, For more information on World Health Day:

Notes to editors

Rachel Trayner
Telephone: +44 (0) 207 148 7623 (direct line), +44 (0) 7738982122 (mobile)

HelpAge International has a vision of a world wherein all older people fulfil their potential to lead dignified, healthy and secure lives. HelpAge International is a global network striving for the rights of disadvantaged older people to economic and physical security; healthcare and social services; and support in their caregiving role across generations.   

For further information on Age Demands Action please go to

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