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Rewriting the Story of Life’s Later Years

Advances in three key areas will help us ensure people everywhere enjoy longer, healthier lives.

By Dean Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD ’79, ScM ’75

Over the past three decades, public health has transformed the lives of children around the world through vitamin supplements, vaccine campaigns, water access, and more. From 1990 to 2022, the global under-5 mortality rate dropped by 60%. While there’s still much work to do, improvements in maternal and child health are no doubt one of public health’s greatest successes.

We rewrote the story of life’s early years—we can rewrite the story of life’s later years, too. 

By 2030, older adults will outnumber the young for the first time in human history— 1.4 billion people will be 60 and older. By 2050, that number will pass 2 billion. It’s wonderful that more older adults are living longer lives, but are we doing enough to ensure good health and high quality of life in these extra years? 

In another five years, 60% of American seniors will face mobility challenges. But more than half of them will not be able to afford the care and housing needed to overcome these challenges. And the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s will nearly double by 2060, creating a significant caregiving gap. 

We need to take swift and bold action to meet the challenges—and seize the opportunities—of an aging society. The coming decades will be crucial, and our goal must be clear: Help people everywhere enjoy longer, healthier lives. 

By shortening the period of declining independence and poor health, we can help everyone lead more fulfilling lives and realize the benefits that older people bring to families, communities, and society. 

To be sure, the problems of an aging population are complex. To reshape our world and our individual futures, we need to improve our health systems, address overarching social issues such as ageism, and adapt our physical environment (from embracing age-friendly housing design to creating more accessible public spaces). And, of course, we must resolve health disparities in marginalized communities to ensure equity in aging for all older adults. These broad changes can only be achieved through robust and sustained investment across sectors and disciplines. 

We must act with urgency and lift up efforts on these fronts: 

Support discovery and innovation: The scientific community is on the cusp of uncovering new knowledge that will markedly benefit older adults. Researchers are working on new blood tests for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia that may be available within five years, and we’ve seen the first drugs promising to slow physical/cognitive decline. AI is poised to improve care through everything from the development of smart devices that detect falls to using deep learning to better understand the fundamental biology of aging. These efforts have the potential to be transformational, but only if we continue to invest in bringing them to the finish line.  

Pursue proven, scalable interventions: Aging experts will tell you we need more programs like CAPABLE, which was developed by Johns Hopkins School of Nursing Dean Sarah Szanton. This program helps people age in place through visits from an occupational therapist, a nurse, and even a handyperson who can make minor home modifications and repairs. It’s currently offered in more than 20 states and costs an average of $3,000 per person, while saving an average of $30,000 in avoided medical costs and nursing home admissions. We need to commit to developing and advocating for these types of practical, economically effective solutions that protect health but also increase independence and well-being. 

Develop and advocate for evidence-based policies: We need policies that improve access and affordability of health and social services. At the Bloomberg School’s Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, director Frank Lin helped craft the legislation to enable over-the-counter hearing aids, which have the power to improve access and care for millions of Americans. Jennifer Wolff, director of our Roger and Flo Lipitz Center to Advance Policy in Aging and Disability, worked on the first ever National Strategy to Support Family Caregivers, which includes nearly 500 actions that can be adopted at every level of government and across other sectors to support family caregivers. To continue addressing the needs ahead—whether it’s increasing preventive strategies or addressing mental health needs of the elderly—we need to expand our work in advancing innovative and effective policies. 

Our best chance for successfully pursuing these goals is to work toward them collaboratively, across disciplines and guided by a shared strategy. Developing a vision and advancing the field in parallel would supercharge discovery and enable maximum impact. Biological discoveries would be translated—and then implemented— to benefit older adults and their communities. Clinical and population health discoveries would be leveraged to optimally target next-generation biological research. And importantly, generations of cross-disciplinary researchers and practitioners would be trained to take on evolving challenges. 

Over the past 30 years, by improving child health, we created a world that is healthier and safer, with fewer tragedies and more room for joy. By meeting the needs of older adults, we can bring more of these benefits into our lives. 

Imagine a world where an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is met with effective treatment instead of despair, where the demands of caregiving don’t overshadow the precious moments and years of one’s life, where a smartwatch helps predict illness, and where all older adults can remain active and connected within their community. 

By working together, we can write a better final chapter for people everywhere.