By the year 2050, the number of Chinese citizens over the age of 65 is expected to reach 329 million. About 120 million of those people will be over age 80, with some 20 percent suffering from dementia. If life expectancies continue to rise as expected, Alzheimer’s disease could be not only one of the most prevalent diseases in China, but also the costliest, according to medical researchers.
With sobering statistics like these in mind, Washington University in St. Louis and its partner universities in Greater China came together for a major conference, the “Forum for Greater China: An Aging Population.” The goal of the conference, held Jan. 21 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Shanghai, was to stimulate collaborative research and conversation that will advance solutions to the challenges posed by China’s aging population.
“The Forum for Greater China provided us with the opportunity to address with our leading Chinese university partners one of the great social challenges of the 21st century,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “We are committed not only to continuing the critical conversation that was begun here, but also to working toward real-world solutions to these issues through our scholarship and research.”
Two Washington University researchers, David Holtzman, MD, a leading global expert on Alzheimer’s disease and related neurological diseases; and Nancy Morrow-Howell, a leading global expert on civic and social engagement later in life, provided the keynote speeches at the forum. Mark Taylor, dean of Olin Business School, provided the opening remarks for the evening gala, expressing his school’s continued commitment to expanding global engagement and collaboration.
“It was very exciting to be part of such an informed discussion with scholars from our partner universities,” said Morrow-Howell, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at the Brown School. “It was so interesting to discover the cultural and sociopolitical variations in approaches to our common challenges as we discussed economic security, health and long-term care, and social engagement.”
“It was readily apparent from our Chinese colleagues that they have been thinking deeply about challenges and opportunities that we are all facing with a marked increase in the percentage of our society that is and will be older,” said Holtzman, the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor of Neurology and head of the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine. “It was clear there are many opportunities to work together and collaborate on this important topic.”
Scholars from Washington University’s partner universities in Greater China — which include Peking University, Tsinghua University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fudan University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, National Taiwan University, and the University of Hong Kong — participated in discussion panels alongside professionals from the China Aging Finance Forum and GlaxoSmithKline.
“This first Washington University Forum for Greater China brought a whole new level of visibility for us in Asia,” said James Wertsch, vice chancellor for international affairs. “This is important not only because we want the world to know about the cutting-edge research we are doing, but because we are interested in reaching out to the world to find new forms of collaboration.“
Wertsch reaffirmed Washington University’s commitment to its global partners and cross-border collaboration. “There has been much talk politically about building walls in America,” he said. “We at Washington University in St. Louis are committed to building bridges — to working with our Chinese partner universities to continue to collaborate on addressing these global issues.
The aging of the population will be the impetus for major economic and societal shifts for China, experts and panelists agreed, particularly as China’s “boomers” are aging.
“Population aging is one of the biggest successes of humankind,” Morrow-Howell said in her keynote speech. “Ironically, it is creating some of modern society’s most serious challenges. We keep trying to extend life while figuring out the profound implications of this new longevity.”
Disease, particularly Alzheimer’s and dementia, will prove a major burden on China’s aging population. Morrow-Howell challenged her fellow experts and audience members: “Our goal is simple. We must decrease the time of living with disability and disease before we die.”
“Only 2 percent of people have dementia at age 70,” Holtzman said during his keynote speech. “Over 50 percent have it by age 85. The number of individuals with dementia in China is currently double the number as in the United States currently. These numbers will likely triple by 2050.
“Our understanding of the scientific underpinnings of Alzheimer’s disease has increased dramatically, and we can now detect the disease even before memory decline is detected,” Holtzman said. “There are a number of very promising disease-modifying treatments being tested that have a good chance to make a major impact on the disease in the near future.”
The forum opened a door for cross-cultural understanding around the different ideas of an ideal old age. Morrow-Howell asked the audience, “What’s a good old age? If we ask a 90-year-old Chinese person or an American person what their ideal daily life looks like, we will get different answers. I’ve been learning through discussion with our Chinese colleagues how large a role culture plays in the way we perceive aging and old age.”
Like climate change, aging populations are a global problem, not a local one. Japan, Germany, South Korea, Brazil, the United States and much of western Europe all have rapidly aging populations. Collaboration and innovation in the field of aging solutions could offer China the opportunity to be a global leader in solving one of the world’s most crucial problems, scholars concluded.
The universities represented at the forum, along with others from around the world, partner through Washington University’s McDonnell International Scholars Academy to address global challenges such as aging, energy and the environment, food and water, and public health. Learn more at the McDonnell Academy website.