Gray matters - preparing for a geriatric planet

By 2050, two billion people will be over the age of 60 worldwide.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the watershed United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, colloquially known as the Earth Summit, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

In the decades since that global conference, people worldwide have been talking a lot about global warming (even if sometimes they don't seem to be doing enough about it). But very few folks are talking about global aging.

That's a conversation Eric Dishman wants to have.

"Whole industries and whole nations are competing to see who can be at the forefront of [green] technologies," Dishman, director of health innovation and policy for Intel's Digital Health Group, said earlier this year. "Gray technologies for global aging," he said, are "sort of the moral equivalent of green technologies for global warming."

And make no mistake: the former poses as much a threat to economies and societies and ways of life as the latter.

This past February, Dishman spoke at the pre-conference for Rio + 20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which kicks off in Brazil on June 20. If the Rio conference in 1992 was about global warming, he said, "we want Rio this year to be about global aging. If that was about sustainable energy, we want this to be about sustainable health."

By 2050, we're going to have seven billion people on the planet, and two billion of them are going to be over the age of 60," said Dishman. "No matter what, for the next three to four decades, we have a legacy of chronic care that's going to bankrupt nations if we don't find a new model."

Dispiritingly, however, Dishman says he's “worried about the United States’ global competitiveness on this issue."

Other countries, meanwhile, including many emerging markets, have already made big strides and "are going to bypass a lot of the U.S. and Western Europe, because they don't have to defend this install-base and fee-for-service model that's so hospital-centric," says Dishman. "They'll dive right into consumer engagement models because it makes economic sense for them to do so. Then they can build a broadband infrastructure and HIE. This is why Australia is making a personal health record available to every citizen in the country by the end of this summer, because they see they need to build this 21st century grid – they have to be age-friendly given worldwide demographics."

Toward that end, in his speech in Brazil, Dishman touted the “3Cs” – connectivity, "careforce" and community.