Europe's 'super-aged' are a demographic timebomb

People may be living longer, but not always healthier. Tackling chronic disease could help change this, writes Karin Kadenbach.

By Karin Kadenbach

08 Jul 2016

Karin Kadenbach | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

Volume 94, number six of the World Health Organisation (WHO), published on 6 June, contains the following quote; "Increased longevity is one of the great achievements of the 20th century. Ensuring the added years can be enjoyed in good health will be one of the biggest public health challenges of the first half of the 21st century."

The WHO perfectly summarises the challenge we face in an age of greying baby boomers. It was recently reported that my home country, Austria, is expected to reach 'super-aged' country status in 2024. This means that more than one in five of the population will be 65 or older. 

We won't be the first in Europe; Greece and Germany already graduated to the super-aged status in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Portugal and Finland should reach these levels this year.


While the 'super-aged' label is an arbitrary milestone, it is a tipping point that drives home why healthy ageing has become so prominent on the health agenda. People are living longer, but that does not necessarily mean they are living in good health.

Statistics show that 86 per cent of premature deaths in people over 65 are due to chronic conditions such as cancer, respiratory diseases, heart disease, kidney disease, musculoskeletal diseases (such as arthritis and osteoporosis), and mental and neurological disorders.

Chronic kidney disease, for example, affects over 10 per cent of Europe's population. Poor kidney health is partly due to demographic trends and genetic predispositions, but is also linked to lifestyle choices such as smoking, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and harmful alcohol consumption.

As Chair of the MEP group on kidney health and co-Chair of the MEP Heart group, I have been working to tackle chronic diseases and give them the appropriate attention on the policy agenda at EU and national level.

The EU is actively helping to tackle these health challenges. It launched the joint action on chronic diseases and promoting healthy ageing throughout the life-cycle funded under the third EU health programme 2014-2020. Yet with the 'super-aged' demographic time bomb ticking, we can't be complacent.

As well as tackling risk factors through healthier and balanced lifestyles, the responsibility for improving quality of life for older people includes taking a holistic approach to the problem. 

We should be encouraging older adults to remain part of the workforce for longer by providing opportunities and incentives that ultimately benefit society at large.

We should also make wider use of technology to allow screening and monitoring health conditions through eHealth and mHealth.

It is also important to empower citizens, putting them in charge of managing their health by promoting health literacy and by raising awareness about the importance of support structure within society, whether family, neighbours or friends.

This year's European Health Forum Gastein will look at "Demographics and Diversity in Europe - New Solutions for Health" on 28-30 September 2016.

Gastein will provide a unique opportunity for European and national health policymakers to share and test their ideas and experiences on healthy ageing policies with over 500 health experts.


Read the most recent articles written by Karin Kadenbach - Overcoming Europe's health challenges requires bold political choices