Soon enough, a quarter of the European population will be aged 60 and above and scientists believe that children born after 2011 have a one in three chance of reaching their 100th birthday. By 2060, the number of those aged over 80 is expected to rise from 22 million to 61 million.
This is encouraging for mankind, but it also means that our nations need to adapt to the changes and pressures that impact economies, social security, healthcare systems and the labour market.
Research on ageing has been identified as a priority by the EU’s research funding programmes.
Investing in research means finding answers to chronic and infectious diseases, pandemic threats and antimicrobial resistance, which are on the rise and threaten the advancements made.
Research and innovation provides the key solution to Europe’s demographic pressures, turning these challenges into investment opportunities, a healthier economy and lower public health bills.
At EU level, joint collaboration in research and innovation means cross-border cooperation where member states share their knowledge and resources in order to ensure that each European citizen can benefit from improved health and care systems across the Union.
But ultimately, member states are responsible for defining their health policy and organising and delivering health services. The EU supports member states through funding, providing them with the tools to help them cooperate and identify best practice. Under Horizon 2020, we have seen how funds can be provided to support research in digital health for healthy ageing.
So if health is primarily a national competence, what can the EU do? Take the issue of access to medicines, which is complex as it touches upon questions of EU competence when referring to the authorisation and maintenance of medicinal products.
The Commission and the European Medicines Authority (EMA) publish the relevant information on the medicines evaluated by EMA, but the relevant national authorities make the final decisions on effective placing on the market.
Parliament has called on the Commission and member states to reinforce the negotiation capacities of member states in order to ensure affordable access to medicines across the EU.
Among other things, MEPs have also urged member states to observe and reinforce the EU competition legislation and its competencies on the pharmaceutical market in order to counter abuse and promote fair prices for patients.
Common infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and gonorrhoea are becoming increasingly difficult to treat and it is estimated that by 2050, drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths worldwide. Parliament has called for the fostering of research and development that is spearheaded by patients’ unmet needs such as by researching new antimicrobials.
In the EU alone, 25,000 people die each year due to infections caused by resistant bacteria. This results in economic losses in the estimated order of €1.5bn due to extra healthcare costs and productivity losses.
Another important challenge that must urgently be addressed is the situation faced by some 30 million rare disease patients in the EU and their families who continue to call on governments to make medicines available to all.
By February 2017, Horizon 2020 had provided over €200m for rare diseases research.
The Commission has made it clear that tackling rare disease with effective treatment requires stronger links between academia and industry. It has also said a limited but increasing number of so-called orphan drugs are reaching patients, but access is particularly limited when it comes to paediatric rare diseases.
The Commission is working on new legislation on health technology assessments - the assessment of added value and effectiveness of new health technologies - and hopefully this will serve as a tool for member states to ensure cost-effective, accessible and sustainable health systems.
We are living in a time of constant changes and rapid development, while governments are under pressure to cut costs and waste. The EU needs to continue supporting research projects and provide funding to universities and SMEs while promoting ethical behaviour and transparency in the pharmaceutical sector.
This is our opportunity to push for equal access to healthcare systems across our member states. It is our opportunity to exploit innovations in medical science and health technologies for the benefit of our patients, young and old.