Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Multifaceted effects of an aging society on public health

Written by Lindsey Debosik, MPH candidate at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. and 2021 Summer Research Program participant

Public health education, research, and training gives one more than just a working knowledge of biostatistics or epidemiology – it inoculates one with a mindset of social justice and causal reasoning with which to view the world. In our Summer Research Program, Aging & Neurological Diseases Track, researchers are encouraged to dive headfirst into the diverse intricacies of the effects of an aging society on the field of public health and on society as a whole.

Lindsey Debosik is a recent graduate of Saint Louis University with a  Bachelor of Science in Public Health and Health Management. She plans to pursue a Master’s of Public Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in the fall.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2018, there were over 52 million adults over the age of 65 in the U.S. By 2060, this number is projected to nearly double to 95 million. The percentage of the U.S. population that is 65 years or older will also increase from 16 percent in 2018 to a projected 23 percent in 2060. In our first seminar of the summer, Brian Carpenter, PhD, expanded on this societal phenomenon, providing context into how the physiological process of aging and the many social implications of an aging population will impact all of us on a personal level.

The issues at hand cannot be ignored. Just as we will all biologically age, it is similarly inevitable that our society adapts to the new challenges we will face due to the increasingly older population. Noy only will this demographic shift impact clinical research needed to evaluate best practices and treatments with older patients, but it will also greatly effect the fields of public health, social work, health management, marketing, entertainment, etc.

While the mindset provided in public health is helpful for understanding the multidimensional effects of aging, a working knowledge of aging as a social force requiring attention is essential for public health. Our society, world, and culture are changing in a way that no amount of age-defying eye cream can stop. Public health decision makers in future decades will need to have an understanding of these demographic shifts and the new needs of this growing population in order to best care for the public and hold a strong, forward-thinking strategic posture.

Several other researchers have spoken to the needed relationship between public health and research in aging and neurological diseases in their work with our program. Karla Washington’s, PhD, work details the biopsychosocial effects of the act of caregiving for hospice patients with cancer, giving a broader context for how aging impacts more than just the individual. Justin Long, MD, PhD, discussed with our cohort the many environmental factors leading to Alzheimer’s, such as one’s education level. The work of public health can effectively impact those environmental and social determinants of health.

The magnitude of this issue is great, and the timeliness of it is pressing. Through current research and further education, public health practitioners can become privier to the weight the aging population may hold in future decision making. In this way, we can be proactive in what we want to see our society become.