China Daily

Pioneer of healthy aging

Using the tools it has today, China can transform its aging population into a vital social and economic force supporting the country’s growth, writes Jonathan Woetzel in China Daily.

China has so far managed to largely contain the novel coronavirus. But when it comes to health, why stop there? With its graying population, China could pioneer healthy aging for the world. And not only would that improve the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people but it would provide an economic boost.

At the McKinsey Global Institute, we think this is not only possible but achievable. We spent the past year researching how to improve the health of the world’s population and calculating the social and economic benefits.

We found that known interventions — such as programs to control air pollution, surgical procedures for treating conditions such as cataracts and heart conditions, and expanded access to primary care — could reduce the global disease burden by 40 percent over 20 years.

A reduction of that size has profound implications for an individual’s health. The most dramatic impact would be to extend the healthy lifespan in middle age by 10 years. That means an average 65 year old in 2040 could be as healthy as an average 55 year old today.

In particular in China, we found that 58 percent of the healthy life years gained would accrue to those under 70, increasing the productive potential of the vast majority of the population and promoting healthy aging.

So what would it take to achieve this? Prevention is key. Globally we found that 70 percent of the health benefits would derive from ensuring cleaner and safer environments, healthier behaviors (including by addressing the social factors underlying them), regular medical checkups and improved access to vaccines.

For China, where the growing health threats are cardiovascular disease, cancers, and neurological disorders, the largest impact would come from two sources. First, preventive measures such as medicines for heart disease, stroke and diabetes, along with vaccines, and early diagnosis and screening. Second, environmental, social and behavioral interventions, such as education for behavioral change such as diet and exercise, smoking cessation and workplace physical and mental health and safety interventions.

But healthy aging is not just about preventive care and medicine. It’s also about adapting societies and economies to unleash the productive potential of older cohorts by transforming workplaces, communities, public transport, housing and public spaces to accommodate the elderly.

As part of our research effort, we calculated what the economic payoff would be from making China’s population healthier. We found it could amount to a $1.8 trillion boost to China’s growth in 2040, mainly from the expanded participation of the older working population, an increase in that cohort’s productivity and fewer health conditions.

Healthy aging could not only extend the healthy lifespan of the adult population in China but it could also be good news for containing healthcare costs. Emerging evidence suggests that improving health over a lifespan will decrease lifetime costs of healthcare despite increasing longevity — a phenomenon known as morbidity compression.

This dual economic boost could help counteract the demographic headwinds facing China. According to the United Nations, China’s median age will increase from 38 in 2020 to 48 by 2050. The graying population has big implications for China’s economy. All other things being equal, it could lower labor force participation and savings, and reduce economic growth.

Our research leaves us with a strong conviction. By using the tools China has today to invest in the health of its population, it can mobilize its aging population to become a vital social and economic force that supports the country’s growth.

And China is well positioned to do just that for several reasons.

First, China has already demonstrated its capacity to prevent illness and respond to public health issues during the current health crisis. Moreover, it has an established medical system, traditional Chinese medicine, that is rooted in prevention rather than a focus on treating illness. And China has the world’s largest pool of medical talent which will help in developing a new generation of prevention focused practitioners.

Second, China is at the frontier of digital health which is expected to improve the accuracy, quality, and value of healthcare across an individual’s life. For example, a one stop healthcare ecosystem platform combines online teleconsultations as well as “telebooths” to provide one minute remote consultations with an AI supported in-house medical team. China’s large population is digitally savvy and open to further innovations that include the use of artificial intelligence.

And finally, the Chinese government is already committed to driving health as a theme for the direction of society. The Healthy China 2030 action plan lays out many actions that are consistent with an agenda of supporting preventive medicine. For example, programs to promote health literacy, well balanced diets, fitness, mental health, environmental health and maternal and child health.

Few investments deliver against so many of today’s social and economic needs, substantially improving wellbeing while also delivering an impressive shot in the arm to the economy. For China, the healthy aging opportunity is too large to ignore.

This article appeared first in China Daily.