7 minute read 27 Jul 2017
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Why an aging population means opportunity, but a lot of work, too

By Pamela Spence

EY Global Health Sciences and Wellness Industry Leader and Life Sciences Industry Leader

Ambassador for outcomes-based performance and healthy aging. Advocate for women.

7 minute read 27 Jul 2017

The health care and social systems of developed countries are facing a challenge: an aging society is not necessarily a healthier society.

The situation is the same in most developed countries around the world: life expectancy is rapidly increasing, while birthrates are falling. Causes include growing prosperity, and pharmaceuticals that are becoming increasingly effective. As a result, the share of older people in the population is rising. In many cases, an increase in age means an increase in the number and complexity of illnesses, some of which may also be chronic. Dementia, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, diseases of the respiratory organs and cerebral perfusion disorders are among the many ailments often associated with age.

Chronic ailments can be very expensive. Generally, therapy is costly, either because expensive procedures are required or because chronic diseases result in long-term costs.

Today, health care systems around the world are already under enormous financial pressure. Many governments are making efforts to contain costs by reducing expenditure for hospitals and physicians in private practice, as well as for medications.

For the pharmaceutical industry, this can bring both challenges and opportunities. While there are challenges involved in serving health care systems focused on reducing costs, there is also a market for new service offerings, especially those that help health care systems get out of the financial squeeze they are in.

By developing such offerings, the pharmaceutical industry can conquer new territory, not only in the traditional field of active substances, but also in the provision of health care and treatment services for the elderly and the sick.

Companies should therefore try to stray from the beaten path of common therapies and strategies, and should aim to break new ground. The industry needs a new vision and new business models that supplement its current ones.

These business models need to focus on the provision of new methods of early detection and illness prevention. Particularly with respect to age-related ailments, it is important to put prevention ahead of often unpleasant and expensive treatments.

When looking for opportunities for growth, the pharmaceutical industry would be wise to also focus on pioneering technologies for data collection, analysis and interpretation. Because for pharmaceutical companies, data access is essential — both as an indicator for the efficacy of their products, and as a strategic decision-making aid. The new mathematical models of data acquisition provide useful approaches for a more precise determination of disease trends, as well as for measuring therapeutic efficacies.

How urgent tackling all of these tasks is becomes apparent from the actual developments in life expectancy. Statistically, those who were born in Germany in 1970 had an average of 67.2 (men) or 73.4 (women) years ahead of them. Ten years later, this had already increased to 69.6 and 76.3 years respectively. And boys born in 2015 will reach 78.4 years of age, while girls will reach 83.4 years of age.

Living in Switzerland appears to be even healthier. Men born in 1981 could expect 72.4 years ahead of them, while women could expect 79.2 years. In 1991, life expectancy for men was already at 74.1; for women, it was already at 81.2. By 2015, the prognoses had improved once again to 80.7 years for men and 84.9 years for women. The life expectancy curves are thus quite dynamic.

[An aging population] results in one primary task: to minimize the number of years in which people are forced to live with one or several diseases.
Gerd Stürz
Market Segment Leader, Life Sciences, GSA

For governments, health insurance companies, research clinics and the pharmaceutical industry — this results in one primary task: to minimize the number of years in which people are forced to live with one or several diseases. There is specific information about this from Japan, where research on aging is intensively conducted. On average, Japanese men suffer from at least one serious disease during their last nine years of life, while women suffer from at least one serious disease during their last twelve years of life.

Even a seemingly minor reduction of six to ten months in this period would provide tangible relief to health care and social budgets. The Japanese Government has concentrated its efforts on those areas of geriatrics that account for the highest costs: chronic diseases, such as dementia, cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Sufferers of chronic diseases often require frequent prescriptions and regular contact with physicians, as well as hospital visits, operations and a care service up to and including palliative care. The pharmaceutical industry can contribute to managing these problems in a variety of ways. Research into new drugs for the illnesses mentioned and other age-related ailments, including hearing and vision loss, will remain the foundation of the industry. However, beyond traditional drug research, there are also very promising and innovative approaches to geriatrics found in related disciplines, such as biomedicine — for example, in the area of preventive or regenerative medicine.

The goal of regenerative medicine is to heal illnesses by restoring malfunctioning cells, tissue and organs. This can be achieved via a biological substitute, such as by using tissue cultures, by stimulating the body’s own regeneration and repair processes, and through gene therapy.

Another potential biomedical advance is the development of senolytic medications, which kill aging cells in a targeted manner. These cells cease their cell division, accumulate over time and accelerate the aging process. Destroying them could significantly improve people’s health as they age.

And beyond the usual molecular approach, the pharmaceutical industry is creating new opportunities, particularly in the area of services associated with age-related diseases. Many of these services will have something to do with digitalization, often the processing of data — mostly patient data — and the provision of feedback. When it comes to measuring therapy success and assessing remuneration, this service will become more important in the coming years.

These forms of service can benefit both the pharmaceutical industry itself and individual patients. There are already providers that collect individual customer’s health data on a continual basis in order to come up with behavioral and decision-making suggestions for the customer while also gathering general scientific data. Other innovative approaches in the digital universe include gamification (use of game-like elements in non-game contexts), bioelectronics and artificial intelligence.

In a later phase, the industry — together with partners — could fully enter the service business. Innovative medical devices, new forms of in vitro diagnostics, and telemedicine could open up completely new opportunities for home care. The Japanese Government is ascribing particular significance to this field of work. According to its research-based insights, many elderly people only require minimal support in order to continue to live independently.

Working together to demonstrate what can be achieved at low cost, Japan Post (a Japanese postal, banking and insurance service provider), IBM and Apple are offering tablets loaded with age-appropriate apps and linked to cloud services in an effort to improve the quality of life of older people.

The subscription service will, for example, remind users when they have a doctor’s appointment or need to take their medication, encourage them to exercise, update their diet and nutritional needs and call their attention to local activities. By 2020, the project aims to cover around 5 million households. The Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai is planning a similar campaign with its partner NTT, a Japanese telecoms company.

These examples show two things: firstly, there are many creative initiatives underway that aim to solve the problems associated with an aging population. And secondly, these initiatives involve extremely varied players, many of whom have previously had no connection with the pharmaceutical industry.

If pharmaceutical companies want to participate in this expansion of the business of providing care to seniors, they will need new business models that include partnerships that allow them to tap into competencies not currently found in the industry. And they will need to embrace innovation that goes beyond traditional pharmaceutical research.


If pharmaceutical companies want to participate in the growing business of providing care to seniors, they need business models that include partnerships as a way of tapping into competencies foreign to the industry.

About this article

By Pamela Spence

EY Global Health Sciences and Wellness Industry Leader and Life Sciences Industry Leader

Ambassador for outcomes-based performance and healthy aging. Advocate for women.