The Chief Public Health Officer's Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2014 – Changing demographics, aging and health

Changing Demographics, Aging and Health


  • Canada's population continues to change in ways that will influence public health in the future.
    • People 65 years old and over represent Canada's fastest growing age group. This trend is expected to continue for decades.
    • Most of Canada's current population growth stems from immigration rather than natural increase.
  • Today's seniors face chronic, mental health and neurological conditions as well as injuries, and concerning trends are also evident among younger age groups.
  • Demographic shifts have brought about societal change with implications for health including changes to work, retirement, pensions, families, caregiving and intergenerational relations.
  • Continued research and investment in public health practices will be required to address demographic changes in the future.

The structure, composition and distribution of the population influences public health. Canada's population has—and continues to—change. This section explores Canada's population, looking specifically at the shift toward an older demographic and its influence on health. This section:

  • includes a broad examination of demographic trends and how these will influence public health in the future; and
  • discusses select health issues and other factors where public health attention or action can improve healthy aging.

A changing population

Canada's population continually undergoes changes in pattern and growth. From confederation until the turn of the 20th century, Canada's population grew slowly, at an annual growth rate of 1.3%, and this growth was primarily due to natural increase—more births than deaths.Footnote 4-6 Between 1941 and 1971, the baby boom and increased immigration pushed Canada's annual population growth to about 2.1%.Footnote 4 Since then, the rate of annual population growth has stabilized at slightly above 1%.Footnote 4,Footnote 5,Footnote 7

Since 2001, population increase has mostly been as a result of immigration.Footnote 4,Footnote 5 In 2011, Canada's overall foreign-born population represented 20.6% of Canada's total population (with varying length of residency in Canada).Footnote 8 The majority of newcomers (those who immigrated in the past 5 years) migrated during their working years (median age is 31.7 years).Footnote 8 While numbers of immigrants are increasing, their fertility rate (birth of second-generation immigrants) is similar to the overall Canadian rate.Footnote 4 The global aging population may also influence Canadian migration patterns in the future.

Figure 1 Population by age group, Canada, 1971, 2013 and 2056 Footnote 15, Footnote 16

Figure 1

* Projection based on medium growth scenario (M1).

Text Equivalent - Figure 1 Figure 1 Population by age group, Canada, 1993, 2013 and 2056 Age group 1971 2013 2056*
Footnote *
*Using M1 projection model.
0 to 4 years 1,836,149 1,921,412 784,151 5 to 9 years 2,267,794 1,883,512 410,506 10 to 14 years 2,329,323 1,869,199 361,777 15 to 19 years 2,164,092 2,179,006 544,808 20 to 24 years 1,976,914 2,446,698 854,886 25 to 29 years 1,643,264 2,409,241 1,324,336 30 to 34 years 1,342,744 2,435,190 1,796,656 35 to 39 years 1,286,302 2,326,894 1,969,898 40 to 44 years 1,284,154 2,371,685 1,964,146 45 to 49 years 1,252,545 2,568,671 1,866,455 50 to 54 years 1,065,664 2,754,727 1,846,436 55 to 59 years 964,984 2,502,143 1,896,416 60 to 64 years 785,693 2,110,304 2,182,207 65 to 69 years 626,521 1,747,099 2,268,379 70 to 74 years 462,065 1,256,325 2,207,335 75 to 79 years 328,583 946,039 2,000,717 80 to 84 years 206,174 728,181 1,706,826 85 to 89 years 101,117 452,943 1,384,783 90 years and older 37,950 249,035 1,406,250

Compared to the overall Canadian population, First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations are younger and growing at a faster rate.Footnote 9-11 Reasons for this population increase include an increased fertility rate, regional migration and legislative changes.Footnote 10 A portion of population growth can be attributed to changes in self-reported ethnic identity (referred to as ethnic mobility).Footnote 10-13 It is also important to note that there are significant variations between and among populations and across regions.Footnote 9,Footnote 10 While projections indicate that First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations will continue to have higher fertility and growth rates than the overall Canadian rates in the near future, in the longer term, these rates will start to decrease due to a decline in fertility and effects of ethnic mobility and the larger proportion will also age.Footnote 11,Footnote 12

The higher fertility rates among some populations combined with the higher levels of immigration may be able to slow—but not prevent—the increasingly aging population.Footnote 14 The first year that Canada's baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1965) reached age 65 years was 2011. Since then the number of seniors (people aged 65 years and over) has begun to exceed other age groups. Canada will move toward zero or negative natural growth as the death rate exceeds the birth rate.Footnote 4,Footnote 5 Public health must consider these demographic changes—the net result of an older population, their impacts on current and long-term health and how best to plan and address the public health needs of all populations in that context.

Canada's aging population

Figure 2 Number of centenarians, Canada, 2001 to 2056 Footnote 15, Footnote 16

Figure 2

* Projection based on medium growth scenario (M1).

Text Equivalent - Figure 2 Year Observed Projected*
Footnote *
*Using M1 projection model.
2001 3,482   2006 4,379   2011 5,268   2013 6,911   2016   7,800 2021   11,100 2026   14,800 2031   17,600 2036   20,200 2041   25,400 2046   35,400 2051   49,300 2056   63,700

The proportion of the Canadian population who are seniors is increasing (see Figure 1).Footnote 15,Footnote 16 Canadians are living longer and life expectancy has increased dramatically for both men and women (see Appendix A).Footnote 17,Footnote 18 In 2013, the number of seniors rose to an all-time high of 5.4 million — 15.3% of the total population; by 2056 it is estimated that one quarter of the population (13 million) will be aged 65 years and older.Footnote 15,Footnote 16 In particular, people aged 85 years and over make up the fastest growing age group in Canada—from 309,000 in 1993 to 702,000 in 2013 (an increase of 127%).Footnote 15 This age group is projected to grow to 2.9 million by 2056.Footnote 16 In 2013, the number of centenarians (those aged 100 years and over) was almost 7,000, nearly double the 2001 total.Footnote 15 This population is estimated to increase to 64,000 by 2056 (see Figure 2).Footnote 16

Global aging perspectives: setting directions for public health

Canada is not alone in planning for an aging population.Footnote 19 Both developed and developing countries are experiencing an increase in the number of people aged 60 years and over.Footnote 20-22 The United Nations (UN) estimates the global population of people over 60 years old will increase from 765 million in 2010 to 2 billion by 2050 and the population aged over 80 years will reach nearly 400 million by then.Footnote 23 This shift has encouraged global planning for an aging population (see the textbox "Setting a global agenda for aging").Footnote 19

Setting a global agenda for aging

The global aging population was first considered an area of interest among academic and policy communities over three decades ago.Footnote 19,Footnote 21,Footnote 24 The UN Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing was established at the first World Assembly on Ageing in 1982.Footnote 24 The Plan raised awareness about global longevity and offered broad guidelines and general principles to meet the challenge of progressively aging societies.Footnote 24 The language used in the document focused on dependence and protection of older people.Footnote 25

By 2002, the Second World Assembly on Ageing took a markedly different approach by focusing on and recognizing the potential of older people's contributions to societal development.Footnote 19,Footnote 25,Footnote 26 Focusing on three policy areas, the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) called for changes in attitudes, policies and programs across the following domains: i) older people and development, ii) advancing health and well-being into old age, and iii) ensuring enabling and supportive environments.Footnote 26 The Plan also called for "mainstreaming aging," that is, integrating aging into existing processes and programs as well as including seniors in policy development, implementation and evaluation.Footnote 19,Footnote 26,Footnote 27

In 2012, member states were asked to evaluate their progress on implementing the MIPAA. Canada's report notes that various policies and programs to support seniors had been put in place, but that challenges remained. These included increasing demands on care and healthcare, stress on public pensions, rates of poverty among seniors and issues with affordability of housing.Footnote 28

Public health and the aging population

The long-term impact of an aging population on society is largely unknown, but public health professionals must plan for future health issues associated with an aging population and the expected increase in demand for programs and practices. Public health has a role to play in:

  • optimizing health and well-being for all ages by contributing to reducing the impact of disease and injury through prevention and health promotion activities across the lifecourse;
  • addressing risk factors and the determinants of health by advocating change to address the root causes of disease as well as differences in health between populations;
  • factoring complex health problems into planning by considering those living with multiple health conditions (comorbidities) and developing broad policies as well as individual and population interventions that tackle these conditions; and
  • creating a society for all ages by taking into account the needs of all populations and intergenerational issues, as well as promoting healthy behaviours from birth to old age as well as encouraging age-friendly universally accessible environments.

Health issues and an aging population

An aging population indicates that society has met many of the requirements needed for people to live longer and healthier lives.Footnote 29,Footnote 30 Still, many health trends and issues that are of concern have their foundation in younger age groups, suggesting that more can be done to ensure healthy aging in younger age groups. As well, many of today's seniors live with one or more chronic diseases, have a mobility issue, or experience a mental health problem.Footnote 29-31 Key health issues are highlighted here because they represent:

  • trends among younger age groups that can adversely affect health over the long term; and/or
  • a significant burden of disease for seniors, with rates that are of concern and/or increasing and a related cost that will continue to impact individuals and societies.

Chronic conditions

The incidence and impact of chronic conditions in the later years can be influenced by experiences and health issues from earlier in the lifecourse.Footnote 32 These include being overweight or obese, healthy diet and physical activity, mental health problems or injuries.Footnote 29,Footnote 33-36 Yet, apart from an overall decrease in smoking rates, younger age groups have less healthy behaviours and less healthy weights and are living longer with chronic diseases and mental health concerns than previous generations.Footnote 37-44 While the causes of some diseases are unknown, healthy behaviours such as participating in physical activity can positively influence healthy aging.Footnote 29,Footnote 45

A range or combination of health issues such as living with one or more chronic diseases, having an acute disease or condition and/or experiencing a loss of cognition or mobility can adversely influence quality of life. Comorbidities also increase demands on the healthcare system.Footnote 30,Footnote 46,Footnote 47 In 2012, 85% of seniors aged 65 to 79 years and 90% of seniors aged over 80 years reported having at least one chronic condition.Footnote 38,Footnote 48 About 24% of seniors have three or more chronic diseases and account for 40% of all healthcare use among seniors.Footnote 30 Currently, people aged 85 years or older with no chronic disease use half as many health services as people aged 65 to 74 years who have three or more chronic diseases.Footnote 30 Public health can help alleviate this by focusing on the earlier, pre-senior years and upstream efforts to protect younger Canadians from disease and injury and promote healthier practices.

Living with chronic conditions can also weaken the immune system and increases the likelihood of complications due to interactions between medications. This vulnerability can increase susceptibility to infectious diseases such as seasonal influenza, food and water-borne infections as well as healthcare-associated infections.Footnote 49,Footnote 50

About 76% of Canadian seniors in private households reported using at least one medication (prescription and/or over-the-counter) to manage chronic diseases, decrease pain and increase physiological function, and 13% had used five or more medications in the past two days.Footnote 51 The proportions are even higher among seniors living in institutions, where 97% used one medication and 53% used five or more.Footnote 51 Problems associated with multiple or frequent use of medications can result in reduced effectiveness, more side-effects or dependency and increased risk of falls.Footnote 51,Footnote 52 It is estimated that about 50% of prescriptions are not taken properly by seniors, and about 20% of hospitalizations of people who are 50 years and over are the result of problems with medications.Footnote 52

Medication use (and associated drug-related spending) is projected to continue to increase based on an expected increased use among seniors and current medication practices among younger populations.Footnote 53 Some of these medications may be taken because of physician-patient miscommunication, inaccessibility to other therapies, lack of medication reviews and reliance on multiple pharmacies or physicians.Footnote 54 In particular, as the baby boom generation ages, a substantial increase in substance misuse is anticipated as this age group uses more medications than did previous generations.Footnote 55 To help address this issue, Health Canada, through the Drug Strategy Community Institute Fund (DSCIF), has called for proposals to improve prescriber education through the development of guidelines, training and tools.Footnote 56,Footnote 57

The aging First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations and chronic conditions

Compared to the overall population, First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations are generally younger and experience higher rates of certain health conditions including diabetes, heart disease, tuberculosis, HIV infection and AIDS.Footnote 9,Footnote 39,Footnote 58-61 Aging has not been the primary focus for First Nations, Inuit and Métis public health, given the higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancies compared with the general population.Footnote 9,Footnote 62 However, as the relative size of the senior population is growing and the age of onset for chronic diseases among First Nations, Inuit and Métis is generally earlier than that in the non-Aboriginal population attention needs to be paid to health conditions of seniors.Footnote 59 Among First Nations adults aged 60 years and over living on a reserve, about 90% reported living with one or more chronic diseases and about 47% reported living with four or more chronic conditions in 2008/2010.Footnote 63,Footnote 64

The health needs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis seniors are magnified by determinants of health such as living in poverty or inadequate housing, and experiencing discrimination and challenges with language and cultural differences.Footnote 59,Footnote 65 First Nations, Inuit and Métis seniors are also more likely than the younger generations to live in rural and remote areas with limited access to healthcare, home care and support.Footnote 65 Research also shows that seniors living with one or more chronic diseases tend to cluster regionally, suggesting that more can be done to maintain health and prevent illness and injury within those regions as well as earlier in the lifecourse.Footnote 59

Researchers suggest that traditional public health research that focuses on addressing disease within First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations is limited if it does not move beyond describing problems to attempting solutions.Footnote 59 Such research focuses mostly on ill health and disability rather than the underlying determinants of health.Footnote 59 Opportunities exist for public health professionals to develop global networks of indigenous research and collaborative practices to address unique challenges and implement solutions that build on the strengths of indigenous populations.Footnote 66

Tuberculosis (TB) is a preventable and curable infectious disease, and yet it remains a significant global public health challenge.Footnote 1, Footnote 2 Each year, tuberculosis infects millions of people and is the second leading cause of death due to infectious diseases worldwide.Footnote 1 While the majority of TB cases and deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, TB does exist in Canada.Footnote 1, Footnote 3, Footnote 4 During the first half of the twentieth century, TB was one of the leading causes of death and hospitalization; today, however, TB disease and death rates in Canada are low.Footnote 4-Footnote 6 Still, certain populations are disproportionately affected by TB, including the foreign-born and Canadian-born Aboriginal populations.Footnote 3, Footnote 4 As well, new treatment-resistant strains of TB are emerging.Footnote 7, Footnote 8 Efforts to reduce impact of this infection are ongoing.

Tuberculosis infection and disease

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by a group of bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex.Footnote 9 There are two tuberculosis-related conditions: latent tuberculosis infection and active TB disease.Footnote 10-Footnote 12

Individuals with latent TB infection have been infected with the bacterium, but it is dormant and does not cause symptoms nor make the person infectious. In these cases, infection can be identified through a skin test or a blood test. Without treatment, a small proportion of these infected individuals will develop active TB disease in their lifetime.Footnote 8, Footnote 11, Footnote 13

Generally, latent TB infection develops into active disease as a result of weakened immune system, the existence of other health conditions or exposure to others with active TB. Active TB disease of the lungs is contagious, and individuals with active TB disease often feel sick and have a cough, pain in the chest area, experience weight loss or have a fever. TB can also affect the kidneys, spine, brain and lymph nodes. Persons with active TB require treatment.Footnote 8, Footnote 10, Footnote 12

TB is an infectious bacterium that is spread from person to person primarily through the air.Footnote 8, Footnote 9, Footnote 13 TB bacteria of the lungs or airways enter the air when a person with active TB disease exhales by coughing, sneezing, and even just talking.Footnote 8, Footnote 13 Once in the air, the bacteria can stay there for hours.Footnote 8, Footnote 13 Once an individual inhales them, the human body can react in one of three ways:

  • a healthy immune system can fight off the TB bacteria;
  • the immune system is not able to fight the TB bacteria completely and inactive bacteria stay in the body (latent TB infection);
  • the immune system does not respond sufficiently, allowing the TB infection to take hold and symptoms to start showing (active TB disease).Footnote 11, Footnote 14

Many factors influence the development and spread of TB. Known risk factors for developing either latent TB infection or active TB disease include:

  • having a weakened immune system or underlying illness such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or diabetes;
  • coming into close contact with individuals with known or suspected TB, for example, by sharing living space or living in communities with high rates of infection or disease;
  • having a personal history of active TB;
  • having received inappropriate or inadequate treatment for TB disease in the past;
  • living in a low income household, in crowded and inadequately ventilated housing or experiencing homelessness;
  • being malnourished or affected by other socio-economic conditions;
  • having a history of smoking or substance abuse;
  • being a resident in an institutional setting such as a long-term care or correctional facility; and
  • working with people at risk of developing TB (e.g. healthcare professionals, correctional staff).Footnote 13, Footnote 15, Footnote 16

TB is a classic example of the relationship between an infectious disease and the social determinants of health.Footnote 16 A landmark study illustrated TB's decline in the U.K. from 1838 to 1970, and attributed this decline primarily to improving social and economic conditions rather than clinical advances.Footnote 17 The research claims that, while effective medical interventions (e.g. antibiotics, chemotherapy) helped to reduce TB rates, those interventions were introduced only after TB rates were already in decline, and thus could not have been the main driving factor.Footnote 17 Rather, it was improvements to nutrition, hygiene, housing and working conditions in the post-industrial era that contributed most to the health progress achieved during this era.Footnote 17, Footnote 18

Mental health across the lifecourse

Mental health problems and mental illness can occur at any point in the lifecourse.Footnote 67,Footnote 68 The current mental health status of younger generations will be an important indicator for aging in the future. Those living with poor mental health or a mental illness are at greater risk of developing physical and mental health problems later in life. For example, depression raises the risk of heart disease and stroke and reduced longevity.Footnote 34,Footnote 69

Certain risk factors for poor mental health tend to increase with age.Footnote 22,Footnote 67 These risk factors include recurrent or chronic mental illnesses that were ineffectively addressed earlier in life; late onset disease; chronic diseases with known mental health complications (e.g. cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive lung disease and Parkinson's disease); and cognitive, behavioural and psychological symptoms associated with dementia or other neurological condition.Footnote 67 As well, seniors who have experienced trauma or distress earlier in life, such as First Nations, Inuit and Métis seniors who had attended residential schools, have been shown to have poorer mental health outcomes later in life.Footnote 70

One in four Canadian seniors have a mental health problem or a mental illness.Footnote 71 The most common mental health issues were mood and anxiety disorders, cognitive and mental disorders due to a medical condition (including dementia and delirium), substance misuse (including prescription drugs and alcohol) and psychotic disorders.Footnote 67 Between 2008 and 2009, 44% of Canadian seniors living in long-term care facilities were diagnosed with or showed symptoms of depression.Footnote 72 Seniors had the highest rate of reported symptoms for anxiety disorders with about 5% to 10% of adults 65 years and over affected.Footnote 67,Footnote 73

Older adults may face serious and undertreated mental health issues. Often the diagnoses of age-related health conditions focus on cognitive decline and do not acknowledge possible mental health problems.Footnote 67 Underlying health issues and/or their treatment can also mask symptoms of mental illness.Footnote 67 Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Strategy for Canada (2012) made a number of recommendations related to changing outcomes for seniors' mental health in the future.Footnote 74 These included countering the impact of age discrimination on mental health; helping older adults participate in meaningful activities, sustain relationships and maintain good physical health; and increasing the capacity of older adults and those who support them to identify mental illnesses, dementia, elder abuse and risk of suicide and the importance of intervening when signs first emerge.Footnote 74 Public health can focus efforts upstream by developing early identification and intervention programs.Footnote 67 Interventions such as the Seniors' Mental Health Policy Lens are intended to facilitate environments that promote and support the mental health of older adults.Footnote 75

Considering dementia and other neurological conditions

The number of Canadians who experience and live with neurological conditions is expected to increase as will the costs of these conditions for individuals, families, healthcare and society.Footnote 76 However, difficulties in diagnosis, data accuracy and capture (particularly in institutional settings) creates gaps in information which makes forecasting the future prevalence, duration and potential impacts of these diseases complex.Footnote 76 Still, these information challenges do not diminish the importance of these issues.

Globally, the significant burden of dementia (an umbrella term for a variety of brain disorders including Alzheimer's disease) for families, societies, and health systems is expected to grow substantially.Footnote 22,Footnote 77,Footnote 78 The World Health Organization estimated that 35.6 million people lived with dementia worldwide in 2010, and predicts this number will double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.Footnote 79 Although the risk of developing dementia increases with age, it is not a normal part of the aging process. In 2011, an estimated 340,200 (2%) of Canadians 40 years and over had Alzheimer's disease and other dementias and this number is expected to double in 20 years.Footnote 76 The rate at which new cases of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are diagnosed is also expected to increase. In 2011, the incidence rate for Canadians 40 years and over was 3.6 cases per 1,000, and this is expected to rise to 5.3 cases per 1,000 by 2031.Footnote 76 Increasing numbers of other neurological conditions more prevalent among older age groups, such as Parkinson's disease, will also need to be considered by public health professionals in the context of Canada's aging population. Parkinson's disease affected 84,700 Canadians in 2011 and, like dementias, this number is expected to double by 2031.Footnote 76

Increases in the number of those diagnosed or living with a neurological or related disability will impact direct (e.g. healthcare) and indirect costs (e.g. lost income) in Canada.Footnote 76 Most people with dementia will require some level of care—from assisted daily living to residential nursing care.Footnote 79 Canadian institutional long-term care demands in 30 years' time are projected to be 10 times the current demand solely based on increases in dementia need and decreasing supply of caregivers.Footnote 80 The estimated costs of these demands do not include the social and mental burden of illness on individuals and their families, which cannot be adequately measured based on calculations focusing solely on money or time.Footnote 31,Footnote 80 Informal dementia care is projected to rise from a current estimate of 19 million unpaid hours per week to 39 million unpaid hours per week over the next 20 years.Footnote 81

Planning for an increase in demand for care will require more research and the identification of disease and best practices on meeting needs including interventions that support people with dementia and their caregivers.Footnote 22,Footnote 30,Footnote 80 A new research hub, the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, aims to bring together research on improving the quality of life and services for those living with the effects of neurodegenerative diseases and their caregivers.Footnote 82

In 2010, the estimated global costs — including direct and indirect — of dementia were estimated to be approximately US $604 billion.Footnote 79 The 2013 G8 Summit Global Action against Dementia focused on research and the growing public health and economic impacts of dementia (see the textbox "Global Action against Dementia").Footnote 83 Canada endorsed the declaration released at the Summit and, as part of the 12 commitments it outlines, is co-leading one of the Legacy Events that aims to foster collaborative efforts between academia and industry.Footnote 83,Footnote 84

Global Action against Dementia


On December 11, 2013, the United Kingdom hosted Global Action against Dementia to acknowledge the burden facing many countries and to build upon relevant research. Summit members committed to approaching the problem together and called for more research and innovation to determine how to improve the quality of life of people with dementia and their caregivers. Members were encouraged to invest in research and work towards finding a disease-modifying therapy (and ultimately a cure) by 2025. Sharing information and data from dementia research across involved countries will achieve the best return on investment in research.Footnote 83 As part of global efforts, a World Dementia Council has been created to provide independent non-governmental leadership for research, innovation, development and care.Footnote 85

One step in reducing the impact of dementia is to increase public understanding of the diseases and their risk factors.Footnote 77 Evidence suggests that engaging in healthy behaviours (particularly nutrition and physical activity) as well as reducing comorbidity can decrease the risk of dementia, delay onset and reduce the severity of its impacts.Footnote 77,Footnote 80,Footnote 86,Footnote 87 In addition, underlying chronic diseases and conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity can influence the risk for Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, preventing and managing chronic diseases is important.Footnote 77,Footnote 80,Footnote 86,Footnote 88

Preventing injuries and falls

Across all age groups, injuries are a major cause of disability and death and are one of the leading causes of hospitalization in Canada.Footnote 89,Footnote 90 Residual effects of injuries suffered earlier in life or new injuries during the senior years can significantly impact aging, mobility and independence.Footnote 89,Footnote 91 Of particular concern to seniors are injuries as a result of falls.Footnote 92 Such injuries will continue to be a public health issue in Canada in the future.Footnote 89

Between 20% and 30% of Canadian seniors will experience a fall in any given year.Footnote 89 Almost half of these falls result in a minor injury, and 5% to 25% cause serious injury.Footnote 92 Considering the current rate of falls and projected population growth, estimates show Canada could expect between 2.1 and 3.1 million falls among seniors in 2036.Footnote 16,Footnote 89

Falls among seniors can result in acute injury, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, reduced quality of life, precipitation of long-term care and even death.Footnote 89,Footnote 91-93 Although preventable, most falls are a result of a combination of compounding factors (including biological, behavioural, environmental and/or socioeconomic factors).Footnote 89 These factors can interact to influence a person's ability to keep or regain balance.Footnote 89 Having underlying health conditions or disabilities can increase the likelihood of sustaining injuries with falls.Footnote 89,Footnote 93 Falls can result in painful fractures that often require surgery and can have long-term health consequences including increased vulnerability to other health conditions.Footnote 89,Footnote 94 Recovery from a fall involves not just physical healing but also psychological adjustment.Footnote 91-93 Periods of immobility can lead to further frailty and increased loss of autonomy. Post-fall syndrome can lead to fear and anxiety of additional falls, loss of independence and immobility.Footnote 89,Footnote 91 While older people's falls are of concern, the increase in chronic conditions among younger people, as well as less healthy behaviours, can affect their future mobility and increase their risk for falls during their senior years.Footnote 93-95

Research on fall prevention has increased over the last decade, and there are a number of ways known to reduce the risk of falls.Footnote 89 Broad population-based practices such as falls prevention guidelines, education and awareness programs have been shown to reduce falls.Footnote 89,Footnote 96 As well, individual risk assessment practices have been effective.Footnote 89 Creating accessible and encouraging environments can also make a difference.Footnote 26,Footnote 97,Footnote 98 Many seniors live in environments that fail to meet their physical and mental health, transport and social needs.Footnote 29,Footnote 31,Footnote 99 In response, an international age-friendly movement has evolved to identify community-based factors, such as land use planning and urban design, that can improve the health outcomes for seniors.Footnote 97,Footnote 98 The goal of adopting the age-friendly approach is to ensure that seniors are involved in community-level decision making that allow programs and policies to facilitate seniors aging in a place of their choice and independent living.Footnote 97,Footnote 98 Ensuring that infrastructure, housing, services and technologies are universally accessible can create a safer environment for all ages.Footnote 26,Footnote 100 By applying principles of universal design (creation of environments and products are inclusive to the largest number of people without requiring modifications) there are opportunities to support all populations.Footnote 29,Footnote 99-101

Changing demographics, aging and society

As the population changes, how societies organize themselves and relate also changes. With an aging population there are expected issues with supply and demand of select services such as health services.Footnote 29,Footnote 30 There are also changes in relationships including families and society.

Shifting views on aging

With a changing population the structure of elements of society such as family, work and other social networks also evolve. These elements are important determinants of health, and how they change and interact for individuals and within populations will also shape future health outcomes. Planning for changing demographics involves challenging attitudes and perceptions about aging and the roles of seniors, family and societal organizations (see the textbox "Myths associated with an aging population").Footnote 102,Footnote 103

Myths associated with an aging population

There are several myths associated with an aging population including that:

  • mental and physical deterioration can be expected;
  • healthcare is a primary issue for older persons;
  • investment in older people is a waste of resources;
  • older workers take away jobs from younger people; and
  • all older people have similar needs.Footnote 102,Footnote 103

Valuing aging starts with challenging these myths and changing attitudes.Footnote 29,Footnote 31,Footnote 104 With aging, as with most life transitions, there are changes but not all are negative. Also, disease is not driven by age alone. Healthcare is an important component for all populations, and while seniors can be larger users, other issues such as staying active and living independently are more often a focus.Footnote 102 In addition, evidence suggests that investments into healthy aging can reduce healthcare and related costs.Footnote 29,Footnote 105

Tackling ageism is a global priority and efforts have been made to establish positive ways to view aging.Footnote 31,Footnote 106 One component of these efforts is to empower seniors to fully and effectively participate in the economic, political and social lives of their communities through income-generating and voluntary contributions.Footnote 26,Footnote 29,Footnote 104 In 2009, the Canadian Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors created The Seniors' Policy Handbook: A guide for developing and evaluating policies and programs for seniors to help policy planners consider seniors perspectives, diversity, and current and future issues.Footnote 107 Work still can be done to develop national programs to address ageism and promote societies for all ages.

Securing a future

With the portion of the population aged 65 and older increasing, concern for health issues associated with not meeting basic needs may arise.Footnote 29,Footnote 108 Without meeting seniors' basic needs—adequate food, shelter, security and healthcare—seniors' health could be compromised.Footnote 96 Over the last two decades, Canada has been effective at reducing overall poverty among people 65 years and over.Footnote 109 Still, 5.2% of seniors live in low-income after-tax households (see Appendix A).Footnote 109 As well, with an increasing proportion of seniors in the population there is some question about the state of pensions and economic security in the future. Although the debate continues across jurisdictions, efforts are being made to ensure that Canada's retirement income system is sustainable, reflects demographic change and continues to meet the seniors' needs.Footnote 110 For example, age of eligibility for the Old Age Security (OAS) program has been increased from 65 to 67 years (effective 2023) and Canadians can now defer OAS pension for up to five years to receive a higher pension.Footnote 110 Changes were also made to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) to increase flexibility and sustainability in the future. As well, the Guaranteed Income Supplement was increased to assist low-income seniors.Footnote 110-114 Additional annual targeted tax relief has been created by increasing the Age Credit and Pension Income Credit, raising the age limit for maturing savings in Registered Retirement Savings Plans and introducing pension income splitting.Footnote 115

The ability to meet future economic needs in years to come will be influenced by the composition of the senior population. The senior population will continue to be diverse and vulnerable segments—the very old, unattached, Aboriginal seniors, and those with disabilities—will require further consideration. In light of the current demographic composition and projected change, a significant proportion of future seniors will clearly be foreign-born.Footnote 4,Footnote 8 Although variation exists, the low-income rate among senior immigrants has declined and was halved between 1980 and 2005.Footnote 116 The longer immigrant seniors live in Canada, the more their economic situation converges with the trends of the overall population.Footnote 117-119 Also, issues may go under-detected given that recent immigrant seniors tend to live with extended family, act as parent/grandparent caregivers or rely on support networks.Footnote 117

Access to economic supports and the benefits typically eligible for seniors often require having been previously employed and having made long-term contributions to earnings and pension programs. This is often not the case or exists at a reduced level for recent immigrant seniors.Footnote 117,Footnote 119 Canada has developed over 50 social security arrangements with other countries to facilitate benefits for immigrant seniors; however, other barriers can be experienced.Footnote 117,Footnote 120 Further investigation into the well-being of this population will help guide policies for public health and other sectors and identify future health needs.Footnote 117

Families and partnerships and society

Demographic changes have created complex, multi-generational and diverse families and communities.Footnote 121 Changes in partnerships, number of children and increased social activity among seniors have altered the roles of older people in Canadian families and partnerships.Footnote 104,Footnote 121

In 2011, most Canadian seniors (92%) lived in private households and some lived in collective dwellings (8%), however of those collective dwellings almost half were 85 years and over.Footnote 122 The number of seniors who live with a spouse or a partner increased between 1981 and 2011.Footnote 122,Footnote 123 As the life expectancy of men and women has begun to converge, the number of years in a partnership and living in private households has increased. Still, a significant number of seniors — 35% of women and 17% of men — live alone.Footnote 123 Living alone does not necessarily mean living in isolation, however, level of social engagement or marginalization can depend on an individual's access to community facilities, transportation and affordable activities as well as having meaningful roles in the community.Footnote 29,Footnote 96,Footnote 98,Footnote 124

Intergenerational relations have also shifted as a result of demographic change.Footnote 31,Footnote 121 On the one hand, familial relations and obligations have changed and distance between family members changed and widened.Footnote 121 On the other, there have been societal shifts in attitudes about the important role of external factors such as primary and institutional care and assistance with daily living.Footnote 104,Footnote 121 Despite these changes, middle generations, commonly referred to as the "sandwich generation," who support both younger and older family members in some capacity are reporting growing stress.Footnote 125,Footnote 126

Intergenerational tensions are often seen as a risk of demographic change. Within society, sharing resources between generations raises debate as to who pays when and how much.Footnote 22,Footnote 105 With a larger proportion of the population in one age group questions remain as to whether public investments should focus on the needs of one population at the expense of others. Policy makers will need to achieve intergenerational equity to not polarize generations and/or populations.Footnote 22 A focus on healthy aging should investigate younger populations, those who are foreign-born as well as those living in remote communities.

Focusing on care

Caregiving involves a number of tasks, some of which are done in combination. These include transportation, housework, house maintenance and outdoor work, scheduling and coordinating appointments, managing finances, helping with medical treatments and providing personal care.Footnote 125,Footnote 127

As the demand for support services from informal and formal networks is expected to double over the next 30 years, the question for public health is how to best meet the needs of Canada's seniors and their caregivers now and in the future.Footnote 125,Footnote 128 Age-related care can be complex and involve both formal (healthcare, home and long-term care) and informal (non-paid, often family care) practices.Footnote 129 While many types of care require attention, this section only discusses informal care.

At some point, almost half of Canadians will have provided care to someone with a long-term health, disability or age-related need.Footnote 125 Spouses/partners provide the most care hours per week (14 hours), followed by children caring for a parent (10 hours).Footnote 125 In 2012, almost half of all caregivers over the previous year were providing some care for a parent or parent-in-law.Footnote 125 When asked, caregivers identify age and specific diseases (such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, mental illness and Alzheimer's disease and dementia) as the most common reasons for needed care.Footnote 125,Footnote 127

As the population ages and population distributions change, the availability of adult-child caregivers may decrease.Footnote 128,Footnote 130 Meeting future demands will require consideration of the next generations' needs and the supply of caregivers.Footnote 131 Factors that influence the caregiving supply are living spouses and an increase in senior volunteers since the large majority of caregivers are seniors.Footnote 128,Footnote 132,Footnote 133 As well, the decline in births and survivor children (especially among the elderly seniors) means that there will be fewer children to provide parental care.Footnote 132 In many communities, especially those in remote and rural areas, over-dependence on a few local caregivers (primarily women) and an out-migration of younger family members and volunteers, can contribute to resource deficits in areas where formal care services may also be less available and/or adequate.Footnote 134 Given these changes, in the future Canada may need to rely more on a formal care system paid for by individuals and/or society.Footnote 128,Footnote 131

Despite the demands of caregiving, many (73% of employed caregivers) report that they are satisfied with the current balance between their work and home life.Footnote 125 Still, caregivers also report feeling tired, stressed, worried or anxious.Footnote 125 The numbers of adverse feelings increases with number of hours committed to caregiving per week.Footnote 125,Footnote 135 Beyond the effects on individuals, there are broad impacts of caregiving on the labour market, governments and the economy.Footnote 136 Employee turnover and missed paid work due to informal caregivers' obligations was estimated to cost Canadian employers $1.28 billion in lost productivity in 2007.Footnote 137 In the same year, the cost of replacement for unpaid caregivers was estimated to be $24 billion.Footnote 138 To address this issue, the Government of Canada announced the intent to develop and launch a Canadian Employers for Caregivers Plan to engage with employers on cost-effective workplace solutions that will help maximize caregivers' labour market participation. The Plan will include the creation of an employer panel that would identify promising workplace practices that support caregivers.Footnote 115

In the short term, a range of policies could support family and friend caregivers caring for older Canadians—flexible labour practices, income security, home/continuing care as well as health promotion and caregiver education and training.Footnote 128 Creating flexible workplaces may enable caregivers to continue working while also reducing the negative consequences of job interruption, reduced income and lower retirement pensions. In the longer term, reduced availability of caregivers may increase reliance on the formal system.Footnote 128,Footnote 131 As a result, broad-based home care, greater community involvement and private enterprise (for individual paid care) may need to be utilized more. Such practices involve increased expenditures for individuals as well as use of privately offered care.Footnote 128 However, privately offered care is not accessible and affordable to all who may require it.Footnote 131 Broad and comprehensive social approaches to deliver care may be necessary to improving wages and benefits, training standards, availability in remote areas, and improving recruitment and retention of these essential workers.Footnote 131

Participating in community and work

Demographic change has raised concern for a possible inequitable burden of labour and community participation across population groups.Footnote 22 From the early 1920s to the mid-1960s, about 60% of Canadians were working age, but then, the baby boom population increased this proportion to nearly 70%.Footnote 14 In the future, this proportion is expected to decline rapidly and the number of working-age Canadians will fall from about 5 for every senior in 2012 to about 2.7 for every senior by 2030.Footnote 14 Views on retirement are evolving as people now tend to reach the age of retirement healthier and more active than in previous generations.Footnote 29 Some older people may want to be employed for the sake of a second or subsequent career, whereas for others, employment may also be a necessity to make ends meet.Footnote 22,Footnote 139 As more seniors work longer for financial reasons, social engagement and activity, the average age for retirement is increasing.Footnote 139,Footnote 140 Canada no longer has a mandatory age of retirement.Footnote 113

Seniors' participation in the labour force has more than doubled since 2000, from 6.0% in 2000 to 13.0% in 2013.Footnote 141 In particular, for those aged 65 to 69 years, the participation rate more than doubled between 2000 and 2012 from 11.4% to 25.5%.Footnote 141 Seniors' participation in the labour force attenuates some of the impacts of a decreasing labour pool, leverages investments made in seniors' knowledge and skills, and provides opportunities for older Canadians to remain engaged and socially connected.Footnote 22,Footnote 31,Footnote 142

Not all seniors are working into old age. Older workers report health problems as the most common reasons for premature exclusion from the workforce.Footnote 143 Of the 35% of workers who left work before their expected age of retirement, about 24% reported having three chronic conditions.Footnote 143 Older workers suggest that having opportunities to change work patterns (work part-time or have flexible hours), change careers or work in more accessible and age-friendly environments would extend their participation in the workforce.Footnote 142,Footnote 144 An UN report noted that employers who effectively supported older workers did so by offering flexible hours and promoting personal-development programs to keep workers active by participating in physical and mental activities.Footnote 145 They also provided flexible work schedules to accommodate the needs of workers who are also caregivers to older individuals and increased part-time work opportunities among seniors.Footnote 144 Making such changes to the workplace benefits all of society and can be enabled by collaborations across workplaces and jurisdictions.Footnote 142,Footnote 144

Extended periods of retirement are often spent in good health and provide opportunities to be involved with family and/or community. While seniors provide the highest average number of volunteer hours, volunteering and community involvement tends to decline with age.Footnote 146 Seniors programs depend on volunteers and much informal care is given by seniors.Footnote 104 All sectors can contribute to increasing Canada's volunteer sector by encouraging future volunteers. People who volunteer when they are young are more likely to continue these contributions later in life.Footnote 104,Footnote 146,Footnote 147 In the future, public health may depend on the work of volunteers and can promote evidence that points to protective factors for health associated with volunteering and being involved in community.Footnote 147,Footnote 148

Continuing research and understanding population change

Looking ahead to how Canada will adapt to a changing demographic involves projecting and forecasting based on current and known realities. The health issues impacting today's seniors are known but it is less clear what role these health issues will play in the future or how factors that influence the health of today's younger Canadians are interconnected and will evolve over time and as individuals age.Footnote 22,Footnote 29,Footnote 30 Canada has identified the need for research on aging and evidence to support the enhancement of programs, services, policies and care. The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) was established to contribute to meeting these needs (see the textbox "The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging").Footnote 149

The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging

The CLSA is a long-term national study developed to better understand aging.Footnote 149 CLSA investigators are following about 50,000 men and women aged between 45 and 85 years for 20 years or longer to gather information on various factors that influence their health (including biological, medical, psychological, social, lifestyle and economic factors).Footnote 149,Footnote 150

Collecting long-term data will supply researchers, public health professionals, healthcare providers and policy makers with valuable information on how Canadians age. This information will contribute to disease prevention practices and improvement in health service delivery; a better understanding of the impact of socioeconomic factors that influence aging over the lifecourse; and the body of information needed to guide and improve age-related health policies and programs.Footnote 149,Footnote 150

The CLSA is a strategic initiative of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and support for this study comes from CIHR, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Public Health Agency of Canada as well as partners with Veterans Affairs Canada and the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.Footnote 149,Footnote 151 As well, universities and academic/research institutions are leading and partnering with governments and supporter organizations to deliver the CLSA.Footnote 149,Footnote 151

In addition to looking at aging populations more research is needed to consider how to address health issues of all populations and age groups over time to ensure the health of the population across the lifecourse.

Continuing efforts

While Canada has made great strides in implementing public health initiatives to maintain and improve the health of Canadians as they age, considerable challenges remain. The continued prevalence of unhealthy lifestyles and of chronic diseases challenges healthy aging now and is likely to continue to do so. Public health can invest in research, prevention and promotion programs and policies for seniors as well as younger Canadians to help reduce the burden of disease and increase the capacity for healthy aging over the next generation and beyond.

Public health can:

  • tackle chronic disease early by promoting healthy practices and preventing the onset of disease;
  • act on the growing burden of dementia by increasing research, raising awareness and improving opportunities for those living with disease;
  • develop and sustain supportive environments for all ages to reduce and prevent injuries and falls;
  • work across sectors to meet the basic needs of seniors and take into account diversity of the older populations in the future; and
  • value aging and its role in society and build intergenerational relations by developing policies, programs and practices designed to support all ages.

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