In This Issue
Technologies for an Aging Population
March 1, 2009 Volume 39 Issue 1

Engineering for an Aging World Population

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Author: George Bugliarello

Editor's Note

The world population is aging. By 2050, the number of people over 65 will increase from 7.8 percent of the global population today (about 500 million) to about 16 percent. By 2016, for the first time in history, people over 65 will outnumber children under five (National Institute of Aging and U.S. Department of State, 2007). The world population is living longer thanks in large measure to better sanitation and improved health conditions.

At the same time, birth rates in many countries of the developed world are declining, thus increasing the percentage of elderly people and altering the age profile of the population. For example, in Russia, Japan, and several European countries, birth rates have fallen below the average replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. By 2030, projections show that Russia’s population will decline by 18 million and Japan’s by 11 million. Conversely, in many developing countries and in the United States, birth rates are higher than 2.1, and the population continues to increase.

The unprecedented concurrence of plummeting birth rates in some parts of the world, a population explosion in other parts, and a large number of older people everywhere is a complex phenomenon that confronts us with multifaceted challenges: how to enable elderly people to function in a world designed by and large without them in mind; how to reduce the burden on the working population of supporting an increasingly large population of retirees; and how to engage retirees who have the capabilities and desire to continue working. According to a 2003 NRC report on technology for adaptive aging, in the United States participation in the workforce by males over 65 declined from 50 percent in 1950 to about 20 percent today; the participation of women over 65 has remained essentially steady at around 10 percent (Pew and Van Hemel, 2003).

In the United States and several other affluent countries, the problem of supporting senior citizens has been exacerbated by early retirement, by unemployment or underemployment in the working-age population, and by the migration of production and service jobs abroad. This situation can be remedied if the productivity level of the active population that supports non-workers can be increased beyond its already high level, or if the active population is increased by delayed retirements or the re-employment of retirees.

Engineering is critical to meeting these challenges. Engineers can create job opportunities by designing or redesigning workplaces suitable for older employees, by developing devices and techniques to enhance the learning and sensing abilities of older people, and by making the world more manageable, supportive, and friendly for the elderly, enabling them to do the things most of us take for granted. This will mean not only providing easy access to shopping, libraries, and medical offices, but also making it easier for them to open machine-tightened bottle caps, negotiate stairs and other obstacles, read instructions, learn how to use new electronic devices, continue to drive a car, or to take alternative means of transportation safely. Several of these goals are “low hanging fruit,” that is, they are relatively easy to achieve if we have the will to do so.

As the United States embarks on a massive, urgent program to revitalize the economy, we should not overlook the opportunity of increasing national productivity and improving the quality of life for a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population. This will require the development of new technologies and the adaptation of existing technologies, extensive applications of systems analysis to optimize solutions, and the encouragement of new enterprises and new markets focused on leveraging the potential of senior citizens. The ultimate benefits will include a decrease in health care and retirement costs, a more efficient economy, and a better quality of life for all, including the disabled who confront many of the same obstacles as older people.

The framework for meeting these challenges is a broad, interdisciplinary understanding of the cognitive and physical abilities of the elderly and the legal and economic obstacles that must be overcome. By neces-sity, the five articles in this issue can address only a few of the challenges of our aging world. The papers exemplify the interdisciplinary teamwork that will be required to meet them, and they provide revealing statistics.

Misha Pavel and his coauthors begin with the idea that “it takes a village,” a team of committed stake-holders, to care for an older person. Pavel and his associates are working on continuous in-home monitoring and assessment for each individual to enable responders to intervene as soon as problems arise. In many cases, caring workers and the creative use of technology can mitigate normal or accelerated declines.

Mobility is the central issue in several papers. Rory Cooper addresses the broad issues of personal wheeled mobility and manipulation technologies that can support people in their daily lives and enable them to engage in community activities and even commute to work. Joachim Meyer focuses on new in-vehicle technologies for older drivers.

Richard Marottoli stresses differences between mobility and ambulation. He notes the necessity of providing transportation for older people living in suburbs and rural areas, as well as in urban settings. He describes potential modifications to vehicles and roadways and the seldom-considered negative consequences of prohibiting older people from driving.

Sara Czaja and Joseph Sharit stress the unrealized potential of technology for improving the quality of life of older people. They underscore the need for changes in governmental and organizational procedures and support for educating more human factors engineers to “improve the fit” between older people and the designed environment.

National Institute of Aging and U.S. Department of State. 2007. Why Population Aging Matters: A Global Perspective. Publication No. 07-6134. Washington, D.C.: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Pew, R.W., and S.B. Van Hemel, eds. 2003. Technology for Adaptive Aging. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.