Dozens of scientists and policy
makers warn that global inequality in life expectancy could trigger a mass migration
from poorer to richer regions. Hundreds of participants at a Sydney conference
on aging say the world's growing aged population will soon become a powerful
force shaping the future of many countries.
A baby born today in Japan can expect to live to 82 and enjoy the vast majority
of those years in good health. Most people in Sierre Leone, however, probably
will not see their 35th birthday.
Such inequality is blamed on poverty, high rates of AIDS infections and low
levels of education.
A recent conference on aging held in Australia highlighted the gulf between
life expectancy in rich countries and in the developing world. There are stark
contrasts between nations in the same region. Australians, for example, will
- on average - reach 80, while just to the north their neighbors in Papua New
Guinea cannot expect to live past 60.
The differences in life expectancy between Canada and Haiti are even more
stark: 79 years compared with just 50. People living in rich countries are
not only living longer, they also are staying healthy longer. There is a new
warning that the widening gap in health and life expectancy will ultimately
cause massive social upheaval.
Alex Kalache from the World Health Organization says if these disparities
continue, it could spark a mass movement of the world's poor, seeking better
lives elsewhere. "This is just going to drive Africans completely crazy and
then you cannot blame them if they will make the effort to leave their countries.
The fear of this mass migration to Europe and other countries, Latin Americans
to North America, Filipinos to Australasia or Indonesians," he says. "This
is going to be a major headache."
Experts say aging populations will become big challenges for both the developed
and the developing world in the coming years. Although poorer nations cannot
match the life expectancies seen in wealthy countries, their citizens are living
longer. That creates what has been described as "additional nightmares" for
health services and economic resources that are ill equipped to handle rising
numbers of frail older people. For modern, wealthy countries, other researchers
believe aging populations will present not only problems but also opportunities.
The organizer of this inaugural longevity conference, Noah Weller, says societies
can benefit from having more active and healthy older citizens. "It is an important
issue that everyone of any age needs to look at," he says. "The key is to respect
the elderly, be inspired by the wisdom and the joy that can be achieved by
spending time with them."
The conference participants heard that the world is nowhere near ready for
the anticipated explosion in the number of older people. In developed countries
the elderly tend not to work and need more health care than the young, which
can stress community resources.
Professor Bruce Carns of the University of Oklahoma in the United States
thinks the aim should be a healthy life and not an unnecessarily long one. "The
average age that a person lives today - a life expectancy at birth - of around
80, say, in some of the developed countries is far beyond the years needed
to reproduce," says Mr. Carns.. "We have now bodies that are wearing out, and
this costs a lot of money and so the goal of science, I think, should not be
to extend life, it should be to improve the quality of life for the years we
There is some good news, however, for those who dream of immortality. A U.S.
scientist claims he may have found the key to curing old age. Professor Michael
Fossell from Michigan State University has said the body's biological clock
can be re-set, making old cells behave like new. He is confident that humans
could easily live beyond their 200th birthdays.
Tests have been carried out on animals in the laboratory but trials on people
could be a long way off. His theories are yet unproved and there are plenty
of critics of his work.