New Delhi: While India’s young demographic profile is often brandished as a key to its economic potential, a first-of-its-kind study suggests that age debilitates India’s senior citizens far more gravely than peers in the US or countries in northern Europe.
The findings also show that nations that are truly challenged by ageing may be those where the cognitive performance among seniors is poor, and not those—as is the case with several developed countries—with an ageing population. In other words, the better cognitive performance of some countries implied that even though their citizens were older, they could be better workers than their peers and thus more useful to their national economies.
Conventional analyses of the economic future of countries assume that old people across countries will be equally debilitated and the stress they impose on a country’s healthcare bill and economic productivity will be a direct consequence of the relative strength of their numbers in a population.
Vegard Skirbekk, professor, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, and the lead author of the study, said that such an analysis was “incomplete”. To test the effects of ageing across populations, he analysed data that measured cognitive health in senior citizens across 19 countries.
“Cultural factors play a major role in how nations define their ageing population and that could be relative. Cognitive and language abilities can be tested far more objectively,” said Skirbekk.
File photo of an elderly couple in Kolkata. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
In the study, published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), nearly 60,000 seniors between 50 and 85 years of age were given lists of 10 words and were scored on their ability to recall them within a minute. On an average, seniors in the US and selected countries in northern Europe (Denmark, England, Ireland and Sweden) managed to recall 50-60% of the words. Indians, on average, managed to recall only 40-45% of the words.
“India was interesting,” said Skirbekk. “While they recalled fewer words on average, the 50 and 85-year-olds performed equally. In other countries—US, Mexico and China—there was a marked decline in performance after 65. We’re not sure why.”
Over 7,000 Indians across a wide socioeconomic range were tested by a World Health Organization (WHO) initiative called SAGE (Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health), while over twice that number—18,000— made up the people studied in the US. According to the latest population indicators, India’s population, which grows about 1.4% annually, is likely to stabilize only around 2065 and only in the latter half of the century are its senior citizens expected to outnumber its youth.
Mint’s Jacob P. Koshy says a recent study finds that the elderly fare poorly on a cognitive level when compared to their American and northern European counterparts
Better education, nutrition and living standards in developed countries related to better cognitive performance. Thus, relatively younger countries such as India and China ought to dramatically improve living standards of their youth for a more productive ageing workforce, said Skirbekk.
Current trends in population ageing are unprecedented and without parallel in the history of humanity, according to a United Nations report. The increase in the proportion of older persons (60 years or more) is being accompanied by a decline in the proportion of the young (under 15). By 2050, the number of older persons in the world will exceed the number of young for the first time in history. This historic reversal in relative proportions of young and old would have already taken place in more developed regions by 1998.
The findings weren’t surprising, but shed “useful” light on the importance of nutrition and education in childhood and youth for a comfortable old age, said F. Ram, director, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai.
He reasoned that the relatively similar performance of India’s 50-year-olds and 85-year-olds was probably due to India’s highly unequal economy. “There are too few people above 65 and 70, as a proportion of population, when compared with developed countries. Those who do make it, the creamy layer, are well nourished and likely to be stable for several years.”