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The United States’ Aging Population and its Threat Towards the Current Healthcare System

As you continue to grow older, so does a large portion of the global population. Aging populations across the world, including in the United States, threaten the structure and success of our current healthcare system. By 2050, the global population of people older than 60 is expected to reach two billion. Central America, South America, and Europe have an increasing aging population, and in heavily populated countries like China and India the number of elderly is even larger. 

By the year 2030, U.S. residents over the age of 65 will be 21% of the total U.S. population. And, by 2035, there will be more U.S. residents over the age of 65 than children under the age of 18. This demographic is the fallout of longer life expectancies, lowering fertility rates, and a cultural shift that has resulted in marriages at a later age. 

The chronic illnesses that accompany old age are weighing on their respective healthcare systems. Common conditions for the elderly include cancer, dementia, obesity, diabetes, and an increase in the number of falls — often leading to an impossible recovery. 

  • The number of cancer cases is expected to increase to 27 million by 2030.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease International estimates that by 2050, there will be 115 million individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease/dementia. 
  • The number of people considered obese will continue to increase. Obesity is incredibly costly for the healthcare system: Patients who are obese cost the Medicare program approximately 34% more than patients who are a normal weight. 
  • By 2030, one out of every 4 Baby Boomers — a generation that totals 14 million — will live with diabetes. 
  • Over one-third of adults that are 65 or older fall each year. Of those that fall, between 20-30% have a resulting injury (like a hip fracture) that decreases mobility. 

In addition to finding innovative treatments for elderly patients, the healthcare system must address a variety of challenges in order to support our aging population. These challenges include a shortage of health professionals, the structure of federal programs, adapting to continually changing policies, and the accompanying strain on resources. Implementing care is yet another complication facing the healthcare industry: With chronic conditions on the rise, healthcare is more complex. Preventative care, instead of reactive care, will need to become the norm in order to avoid an eldercare calamity. Aspects of preventative care may include strict follow-up protocol, a better plan before discharge, and a structured system to monitor patient activity. In general, case management must provide the appropriate care coordination, plan assessment, and evaluations. 

Assisted living facilities and in-home care are part of a rapidly growing niche market dedicated to an aging population. By 2050, the number of people over the age of 65 will reach 88 million, nearly doubling from the current 47.8 million. That massive senior population will demand more post-retirement help, much of which will come by way of home health aides and nursing homes. 

The number one growth job in the United States is the home health aide. In the next few years, another million aides will be necessary to keep up with the growing demand. In-home caregivers often manage complex medical tasks like injections and IV administration, which makes the cost of this care steep. Nursing homes have their own set of problems: Patients in nursing homes today suffer from more complex medical conditions than patients in previous years. Overall, nursing homes have fewer patients staying for a shorter time. And, the government pays for 80% of all nursing home care, which has cultivated an environment ripe with fraud. 

Despite the challenges of chronic illness and understaffing, there is progress being made in the appropriate direction to improve the United States’ eldercare system. Enabled by the right technology — designed to provide care and empower caregivers — less patients will need emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Remote patient monitoring (RPM) offers continuous surveillance to prevent harm and thus decrease potential healthcare costs. RPM can also help track an elder that is missing. Telehealth, becoming popular in the larger medical community as well, is useful to distribute information for patients who are not in a position to travel to a doctor. Unfortunately, lack of reimbursement is preventing the widespread adoption of these technologies. 

To meet the needs of an aging population and provide the desired (and deserved) level of care, the healthcare industry must embrace technology, staff appropriately, and structure care plans to match desires of both patient and caregiver. If the healthcare system can address this challenge head-on, the millions of elderly patients in the United States will live happier, healthier lives.