The portion of India’s population age 65 and older is expected to more than triple between 2000 and 2050 -- a path that China's and Indonesia’s populations are also slated to follow, and which reflects a broader aging trend taking place in much of Asia. This demographic shift was the subject of an international conference held in New Delhi on March 14 and 15, hosted by the Indian National Science Academy.
As part of the opening session, Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, a member of the planning commission of the government of India, stressed the need to prioritize the elderly in the government’s next five-year plan for development beginning in 2012. She noted the particular plight of widows, whom “society treats…as pariahs,” and said that India’s sustainable growth depends on including its older citizens. “Our elderly people are not a burden, they are a resource,” she said.
The conference presentations that followed included a wide range of new findings on health, economic well-being, and social and family support in Asia’s elderly. For example, researcher Sanjay Kumar of the United Nations Population Fund examined trends in living patterns and found that the percentage of Indian elderly living alone or with a spouse -- as opposed to with their children – increased between 1993 and 2006. Research by Yaohui Zhao from Peking University, based on data from a Chinese longitudinal study, found that participating in social activities can slow the decline of cognitive function.
First Findings From a Long-Term Study of India’s Elderly
Several presentations revealed preliminary findings from the pilot phase of the Longitudinal Aging Study in India (LASI). David Bloom of Harvard University, one of the study’s principal investigators, explained LASI’s context, noting that the aging trend will be difficult for India. With fewer children living close to their parents, he said, family-based support systems are eroding. In such situations people usually look to government for support, but in India there is currently a vacuum.
LASI, which will eventually be expanded to follow a nationally representative group of 30,000 people over time, will provide evidence that can be used to shape policies to help fill that void. The pilot phase was conducted in four Indian states -- Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, and Rajasthan -- and concluded in December 2010.
The pilot went “quite well,” Bloom said, and the data exhibit some interesting patterns. These were explored in several subsequent presentations, including one by P. Arokiasamy of the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai and Jinkook Lee of Rand Corporation. Their analysis of pilot LASI data found that in India -- in contrast with many developed countries -- higher levels of education are linked to greater prevalence of diabetes and hypertension.
Another presentation, by Lisa Berkman of Harvard University, included early findings on what the pilot LASI data may show about social networks. For example, more than three-quarters of both men and women said that they felt very close to their spouse. But a striking gender difference appeared on another issue: While 90 percent of men said that they live in a neighborhood where people work together to fix problems, only 24 percent of women concurred, though they share the same neighborhoods.
Challenges and Next Steps for Researchers
A roundtable discussion during the final afternoon explored how best to promote high-quality scientific research on aging. Noting the large number of grant proposals he sees that cross disciplinary boundaries, Richard Suzman, director of the U.S. National Institute on Aging’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research, said research and funding institutions will need to flexible enough to work with the growing interdisciplinary nature of aging research, and issued a plea to them to be broad enough to address “one of the world’s great challenges.” Yaohuo Zhao raised the need for researchers to share data, remarking that researchers in China have long done the opposite. Those in government will depend on research institutions to provide direction, said Belah Shah of the Indian Council of Medical Research, observing that the session had provided much input.
What are some of the major challenges ahead for researchers? Funding for studies on aging will be a key challenge, said David Bloom in a closing roundtable. With governments strapped for funds and foundation endowments shrinking, researchers will need to reach out to nontraditional funding sources, such as the business sector, he said. Mature, well-designed longitudinal studies are needed to counter weaknesses in some of the existing research, suggested Robert Hauser of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
In order to support these long-term studies, ministers will need to be able to see their value -- and that they provide something which quick surveys cannot, said T.C.A. Anant, secretary of the Indian government’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. The need for clear communication is also crucial, noted Zhenzhen Zheng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who said that researchers have to learn how to talk to the public and scientists in other fields. She also pointed out that to interpret data accurately, researchers must understand “the people behind the data” and their particular social and cultural context, one of the benefits offered by international collaborations.
-- Sara Frueh