On Wednesday, the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations, Business Council for the United Nations, and UN Foundation hosted the first of a series of panel discussions on global health. This first discussion was on global aging and was also sponsored by the AARP, International Federation on Aging, Global Coalition on Aging, Help International, and Pfizer.

The topic is timely because within the next five years, people over age 65 will outnumber children under 5 for the first time. This plays into other demographic changes such as urbanization: between 1975 and 2005, the number of older people living in urban areas quadrupled.

The participants in this multi-sector discussion were:

* Dr. Jane Barratt, Secretary General of the International Federation on Aging

* Ambassador Luis-Alfonso de Alba, Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations

* Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, Executive Director, WHO office at the United Nations

* Rosemary Lane, Senior Social Affairs Officer, Focal Point on Aging, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs

* Rowena Pullan, Vice President, R&D Supplements, Pfizer

One of the major themes of the discussion were that aging starts at birth, and so should health education and preventative care.

Another was that older people have the same rights in terms of health and dignity as anyone else. Social exclusion based on age and health affects the whole society, and mental health problems such as depression were also identified as important challenges. Ms. Lane discussed the need to recognize the human rights of older people, and to move from a needs based to a rights based approach. For example, diseases that are common in older people often go untreated because there is a perception that this is just a part of being old.

Similarly, the focus of international funding on child and maternal health, as important as they are, means that resources are concentrated in those areas and the treatment and rights of older people are not a priority. Yet the health and mobility of older people affects the entire society; families, relatives, or even the state have to take care of them if they are incapacitated. Following from this theme was the repeated mention of the importance of social roles for older people once they retire or cannot work.

The role of the private sector was another theme, centering on the importance of multi-sectoral partnership. Ms. Pullman said that although the private sector has a role to play, it has to be in partnership with civil society. A large part of the role of a company like Pfizer, which has connections and access in the fields of science and academia, is in education; they have the resources and data to make health information available and accessible to the public.

The keys to successful multi-sectoral partnerships, she said, are trust, complementarity, and the continued holding of dialogues such as this one. Trust is particularly important when it comes to the private sector and its intentions, so keeping the lines of communication open is critical. Dr. Kumaresan noted that partnerships with the private sector and the state are important because the health sector cannot make effective changes on its own; there is a need for policy expertise and policy changes that will create an environment that will lead to healthy lifestyles and age friendly cities.

Finally, like many areas in health policy these days, the importance of locally led policy was a theme. Local policies can influence choices in other parts of the country, such as when Liverpool took the choice to ban smoking indoors in public places and this influenced policy at the national level, to use the example mentioned by Dr. Kumaresan  Ambassador de Alba also noted that in Mexico, more has been achieved achieved at the local level than the national level, and that he hoped some very positive policies implemented in Mexico City would be adapted by other parts of the country.

Dr. Kumaresan closed his thoughts by saying that if a 100 year old man can complete a marathon, maybe it’s time to rethink what it means to be old.