Global Health

The population of Planet Earth is expected to exceed 11 billion people by the end of the century, according to new official United Nations population projections.

At the moment, the global population is about 7.3 billion, an increase of a billion people in the past 12 years.

While the global population continues to grow, it’s doing so at a lower rate than before. Recently, the Earth’s inhabitants grew at 1.24 percent each year, while it’s currently down to 1.18 per year, creating an increase of 83 million people annually.

This continuing growth, as well as a growing number of people with unprecedented life expectancies, will create new and lasting challenges for healthcare worldwide.

It’s not a simple question of human numbers. If you want to diagnose the problems, look at the rate of human consumption.
John Wilmoth, United Nations

John Wilmoth, director of the population division at the United Nations, told Healthline that the rapid decline in child mortality and increased life expectancy are the primary reasons for the population growth and one of the greatest achievements of the human species.

“That’s what’s driving most of this,” he said. “Sometimes people forget to see this as a sign of our success.”

The population growth could have wide-ranging impacts on the environment, economy, and health, including maternal and child mortality and lagging government investments in health, education, and infrastructure.

But Wilmoth said the numbers alone aren’t the problem. Currently, with 7.3 billion people on the planet, about a billion of those use the most resources.

“It’s not a simple question of human numbers,” he said. “If you want to diagnose the problems, look at the rate of human consumption.”

Greatest Increase in Africa and Asia

More than half of the global population growth is expected to happen in Africa, with numbers expecting to reach 1.3 billion by 2050. Asia is expected to contribute almost 1 billion to the global population.

“Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding future trends in fertility in Africa, the large number of young people currently on the continent who will reach adulthood in the coming years and have children of their own, ensures that the region will play a central role in shaping the size and distribution of the world’s population over the coming decades,” the report states.

Certain areas of Africa — which remain the poorest and least developed in the world — will see five-fold increases, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, and others.

World Population

This, experts say, will put excessive strain on currently taxed resources and will create barriers towards equality and overall public health.

“The concentration of population growth in the poorest countries will make it harder for those governments to eradicate poverty and inequality, combat hunger and malnutrition, expand education enrollment and health systems, improve the provision of basic services and implement other elements of a sustainable development agenda to ensure that no one is left behind,” the report states.

China and India remain the largest countries in the world with a combined population of 2.7 billion, but India is expected to surpass China as the most populous country within seven years.

Other countries are expected to see population decreases by as much as 15 percent. This is due, in part, to fertility rates remaining below the needed birthrate to maintain the current population, or 2.1 babies per mother. The birth rate in Europe, as a whole, is currently 1.6 children per woman and is only expected to increase to 1.8 by 2050.

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A Need for Birth Control

Prior research published on global population increases suggests that overpopulation is an overlooked part of global health.

At the forefront of this is increased access to birth control in poor areas — to prevent high-risk pregnancies and communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS — without the resources to combat the problems.

As more people are surviving longer, Wilmoth says lowering fertility rates may be in order, even if its use remains controversial.

“It’s certainly a major factor as what causes a country to lower their fertility over time,” he said. “It’s probably a good idea in the long run to have the fertility come down to balance things out.”

Besides preventing the increase of sexually transmitted diseases, research shows access to birth control also prevents 1.94 million unintended pregnancies in the United States each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Some estimates suggest every $1 spent on publicly funded family planning services saves $4 on Medicaid expenditures for pregnancy care.

In areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half of the world’s growth is expected to occur, education and family planning services can have a major impact, Wilmoth said.

“People will find a way to find birth control, one way or another,” he said. “They are often dangerous and not as effective compared to if they have modern services provided to him.”

In 2006, the World Health Organization determined that for every 1,000 people on the planet, there is a need for 2.3 doctors, nurses, and midwives. This “healthcare density ratio” means that for the expected 9.7 billion people in 2050, more than 22 million healthcare workers will be needed to care for them. WHO estimates a global healthcare worker shortage of 12.9 million people by 2035.

The high need for family planning resources is one area that needs the most improvement, according to a 2011 report headed by Sara Pacqué-Margolis, director of monitoring and evaluation at IntraHealth International.

“Doing so would go a long way toward reducing the number of people worldwide with no access to essential health services,” Pacqué-Margolis said in a press release. “More importantly, doing so would create a world where far fewer mothers suffer the agony of losing a child because they couldn’t get to a health worker in time.”

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Providing Care for an Aging Global Population

In Japan, the world leader in long life, life expectancy now exceeds 83 years and other developed countries aren’t too far behind.

The latest U.N. projections show the life expectancy in the least developed countries have gained an additional six years while developed countries have only gained three. There still exists a major gap though. Someone living in Africa, on average, will live to be 60 years old while people in North America live to be 79.

By 2020, a new demographic milestone will be reached: The number of elderly will exceed the number of infants.   

The WHO estimates the number of people over the age of 65 will increase to 1.5 billion, mostly in developed countries. That means 16 percent of the world’s population will be elderly.

Thanks to medicine that allows people to live longer and a declining fertility rate, the major health threats of previous generations — infectious and parasitic diseases — are no longer major threats to children.

Now, chronic and preventable diseases are the greatest threat to the new aging population, particularly heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The goal is to reduce the severity of these conditions on the older population so they can remain healthy and mobile for longer.

These goals will also help reduce the strain on a nation’s infrastructure, namely healthcare and long-term living facilities.

“The longer people can remain mobile and care for themselves, the lower are the costs for long-term care to families and society,” a WHO report on aging states.

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