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Older people and their health during the pandemic

older people concept. An elderly Indian man at the retirement home. Illustration of mental health conditions among senior citizens. Image credit: rawpixel / 123rf
Image credit: rawpixel / 123rf

The COVID-19 pandemic has revitalised the conversation surrounding the need to care for the health of older people – an issue that already is of significant import considering the world’s ageing population. 

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that “between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over sixty years will nearly double from twelve percent to 22 percent. By 2020, the number of people aged sixty years and older will outnumber children younger than five years.”

This, of course, is 2020 – and the events of the year (especially the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or simply coronavirus) have acted as a catalyst for why the health of our seniors is a matter necessitating attention. For India – a low- and middle-income country – the imperative is heightened. The WHO in 2018 projected that “in 2050, eighty percent of older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries.”

Older people are more susceptible to a range of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). These underlying conditions predispose those affected to experience serious and potentially life-threatening complications should they become infected with the novel coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19. 

Writing of how advanced age interacts with COVID-19, I reported for Health Issues India earlier this year that India’s seniors continue to account for the largest proportion of deaths due to COVID-19.” I quoted the WHO, who said “although all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, older people face significant risk of developing severe illness if they contract the disease due to physiological changes that come with ageing and potential underlying health conditions.” 

This is not to say COVID-19 is solely the disease of the elderly. That is far from the case. As I noted in that report, “those in younger age demographics are far from immune to the effects of the disease.” Nonetheless, safeguarding the health of our seniors during a pandemic that affects them disproportionately is vital. As we reported, citing a Nature study

“The correlation between advanced age and heightened risk of severe complications is “a feature shared with the 2003 SARS epidemics. “This age gradient in reported cases, which has been observed from the earliest stages of the pandemic, could result from children having decreased susceptibility to infection, a lower probability of showing disease on infection or a combination of both, compared with adults. Understanding the role of age in transmission and disease severity is critical for determining the likely impact of social-distancing interventions on SARS-CoV-2 transmission, especially those aimed at schools, and for estimating the expected global disease burden.””

It is, to be clear, good news that people are living longer. This stands as testament to the medical advances we have made. However, we must also factor in that longer life expectancies entail a higher probability that rates of various diseases will surge.

Indians, on average, live longer today than they did in years past. As previously reported by Health Issues India, “Indians are living longer on average, as the country’s life expectancy has shown an increase between the 2012-16 and 2013-17 periods. In the former timeframe, average life expectancy was 68.7 years, with men living for 67.4 years and women for 70.2 years on average. 

“As of the latter period, life expectancy has gone up to 69 overall and to 67.8 and 70.4 for men and women respectively. In the last four decades, life expectancy has increased by 19.3 years according to the Sample Registration Survey which provided the data: in the 1970-75 period, it stood at 49.7 years.” 

Physical disease is not the only challenge for India’s seniors. Mental and emotional wellbeing is also a matter for concern. COVID-19, given the lockdown restrictions imposed, is virtually certain to have exacerbated this issue. 

On International Day of Older People, observed today, we must take stock of these statistics, these realities and these issues. Older people grow in number year by year. This, as aforementioned, is testament to the advances in medicine we have made. How we respond to their care needs in all respects will serve as the testament to the advances we make going forward. 

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