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World's older population growing by unprecedented 800,000 a month

December 13, 2001

Victoria Velkoff/Kevin Kinsella, U.S. Census Bureau | 301-457-3030/301-457-3670 | 301-457-1037 (TDD) 

NIA Press Office | 301-496-1752 | nianews3@mail.nih.gov

The world's population age 65 and older is growing by an unprecedented 800,000 people a month, according to a report issued today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Institute on Aging (NIA). The report, An Aging World: 2001, predicted that this phenomenon of global aging will continue well into the 21st century, with the numbers and proportions of older people continuing to rise in both developed and developing worlds.

The pace of population aging, the report found, varies widely among countries. Generally, developing countries are aging faster than more developed ones. Demographers estimated that more than three-quarters of the world's net gain of older people from 1999 to 2000 occurred in still-developing countries.

The ratio of older people to total population differs widely among countries, too. The United States was 32nd on a list ranking countries with high proportions of people age 65 and older. Italy replaced Sweden as the world's oldest country in 2000, with 18 percent of Italians having celebrated at least a 65th birthday, the report said.

"Global aging is occurring at a rate never seen before and we will need to pay close attention to how countries respond to the challenges and opportunities of growing older," said Nancy Gordon, the Census Bureau's associate director for demographic programs. "In the United States, one of the comparatively younger developed countries, with 13 percent of its people age 65 and older, we may be able to learn from the experience of ‘older' countries."

"Population aging is a fundamental transformation of human society," said Richard M. Suzman, associate director of the NIA, Behavioral and Social Research Program. "Many governments and international agencies, as well as demographic researchers, have only recently begun to pay attention to this increasingly important trend."

Generally, populations begin to age when fertility declines and adult mortality improves. Of the countries covered in this report, Japan had the highest average life expectancy at birth — 81 years, followed by Singapore (80) and several other developed countries: Australia, Canada, Italy, Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland (79). Levels for the United States and most other developed countries fall in the 76- to 78-year range.

An Aging World: 2001 is part of ongoing efforts by the Census Bureau and the NIA to study aging in the United States and the world. Prepared by Victoria Velkoff and Kevin Kinsella of the Census Bureau, it looks at current and projected population in countries throughout the world and includes comparative data on life expectancy, health status, social support and retirement.

Other report highlights:

  • Of the 227 countries or areas of the world with at least 5,000 population, 167 (74 percent) had some form of an old-age disability or survivors' program in the late 1990s, compared with 33 in 1940.
  • In the mid 1990s, public pensions absorbed 15 percent of gross domestic product in Italy and Uruguay, 7.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Mexico.
  • Disability rates among the older population are declining in developed countries but were likely to increase in developing countries.
  • Older people in the United States were more educated than in most other countries, but educational attainment of the older population is projected to increase in most countries over the next several decades.
  • In many countries, the oldest old (80 and above) were the fastest-growing component of the population.
  • More than one-third of the world's oldest people (80 and above) lived in three countries: China (11.5 million), the United States (9.2 million) and India (6.2 million).
  • Among developing regions, the Caribbean had the highest percentage of older people (7.2 percent).
  • There were more older women than older men in the vast majority of the world's countries; notable exceptions were India, Iran and Bangladesh.

Suzman noted that the Census Bureau/NIA report comes amid new recommendations for international research on world aging by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. The NIA-supported review, reported in Preparing for An Aging World: The Case for Cross-National Research, found an international focus would be a powerful tool for policy-makers worldwide, offering a broader approach to understanding population aging than single-nation research alone. The Academy's report urged countries to develop comparable data on their own aging populations.

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