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Asia’s aging population creates societal challenges

USC experts discuss the results of demographic shifts and increases in life spans

Dean Pinchas Cohen
USC Davis Dean Pinchas Cohen welcomes attendees to a reception at the USC Pacific Asia Museum. (Photo/C. McDowell / The Image Artist)

Several Asian nations have some of the most rapidly aging populations in the world, and the dramatic change in demographics is creating new public health, economic and societal challenges, according to researchers from member universities of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU).

The USC Davis School of Gerontology hosted the 2014 APRU Research Symposium on Aging at the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center Sept. 14-17.

“It is time for us to address very thoughtfully the issues raised by different demographics,” said USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett in her welcome address. “The USC Davis School of Gerontology is leading the way both on campus and in the world.”

Dean Pinchas Cohen said “USC has a strategic vision that includes the study of aging across the life span.


Increases in average life span and declining birthrates have brought about the rapid aging seen in many nations throughout the world during the last few decades, and the effect is extremely pronounced in many Asian countries. However, getting older can bring vastly different changes for people in varying circumstances, as several large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal studies throughout the region have shown, said University Professor Eileen Crimmins, holder of the AARP Chair in Gerontology.

With regard to aging, “my hypothesis is that major physiological changes accompanied the epidemiology revolution and the technology revolution,” said Crimmins, one of the conference’s organizers and a world-renowned expert on biodemography. “As we look across nations, people of different ages with differing access to technology and epidemiology have different physiological characteristics.”

For example, in areas where infectious diseases have become better controlled, less childhood infection and inflammation can mean less organ damage that contributes to complications later in life, while increased access to technology can result in less physical labor and more obesity within the population, Crimmins said.

With rapidly changing societies, older adults are “living in an environment that we did not evolve in, and we may need to adapt with changes in lifestyle and habits,” she added.

Poverty and pension policies

Public health efforts are swiftly shifting from stopping the spread of infectious diseases to helping those with physical disabilities or chronic medical conditions — such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome and mental health issues — live more productive and independent lives as they age.

For example, USC Davis Professor Jinkook Lee noted that high older-adult suicide rates in Korea coincided with high rates of poverty for older adults and pension policies that benefit very few retirees.

Forty percent of Koreans from ages 72 to 78 are depressed, and 49 percent of the country’s elderly live in relative poverty. Seventy-two out of every 100,000 Koreans commit suicide each year, more than triple the average rate for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations.

“The suicide rate in Korea is quite startlingly high, especially for the elderly,” Lee said. “It skyrocketed after the 1997 financial crisis.”

Near the end of the symposium, Mike Yamano, chancellor of Tokyo’s Yamano College of Aesthetics and member of the USC Davis Board of Councilors, spoke about the power of educational partnerships and the importance of gerontology education in Asia.

Yamano College provides gerontology education through a partnership with USC Davis, which helps the school’s future aestheticians better understand the needs of elderly clients and serve them through volunteer work, he said.

“Beauty is for all ages,” Yamano said. “A sunset is as beautiful as a sunrise.”

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Asia’s aging population creates societal challenges

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