Japan as the front-runner of super-aged societies: Perspectives from medicine and medical care in Japan

Geriatr Gerontol Int. 2015 Jun;15(6):673-87. doi: 10.1111/ggi.12450. Epub 2015 Feb 5.


Background: The demographic structure of a country changes dramatically with increasing trends toward general population aging and declining birth rates. In Japan, the percentage of the elderly population (aged ≥65 years) reached 25% in 2013; it is expected to exceed 30% in 2025 and reach 39.9% in 2060. The national total population has been decreasing steadily since its peak reached in 2008, and it is expected to fall to the order of 80 million in 2060. Of the total population, those aged ≥75 years accounted for 12.3% as of 2013, and this is expected to reach 26.9% in 2060. As the demographic structure changes, the disease structure changes, and therefore the medical care demand changes. To accommodate the medical care demand changes, it is necessary to secure a system for providing medical care. Japan has thus far attained remarkable achievements in medical care, seeking a better prognosis for survival; however, its medical care demand is anticipated to change both qualitatively and quantitatively. As diseases in the elderly, particularly in the old-old population, are often intractable, conventional medical care must be upgraded to one suitable for an aged society. What is required to this end is a shift from "cure-seeking medical care" focusing on disease treatment on an organ-specific basis to "cure and support-seeking medical care" with treatments reprioritized to maximize the quality of life (QOL) for the patient, or a change from "hospital-centered medical care" to "community-oriented medical care" in correlation with nursing care and welfare.

Current situation and problems: (1) Necessity for a paradigm shift to "cure-and-support seeking medical care" In addition to the process of aging with functional deterioration of multiple organs, the elderly often suffer from systemically disordering diseases, such as lifestyle-related diseases, as well as geriatric syndrome and daily activity dysfunction; therefore, integrated and comprehensive medical care is required. In addition, with regard to diseases in the elderly, not only their acute stage, but also their chronic and intermediate stages must be emphasized in their treatment. Aiming to achieve a complete cure of disease by exploring the cause and implementing radical treatment, the conventional medical care model is difficult to apply to the medical care of the elderly; medical care suitable for the elderly is required. (2) Spread of home-based care and the necessity for human resources development Many elderly people want to continue to live in their house and their community where they have been living for a long time, even with disease. There are increasing needs for QOL-emphasizing home-based care for patients in the intermediate stage after completion of acute stage treatment, or for end-of-life care. Hence, there is a demand for a shift to "community-oriented medical care" for providing comprehensive care supported with medical and nursing resources available in the community. As the percentage of the elderly population (aged ≥65 years) and the availability of medical care resources vary considerably among different regions, it is important that specialists in the fields of public health, medical care, nursing care, and welfare work on establishing a collaborative system suitable for the local characteristics of each region by making the best use of their own specialties. (3) Necessity for establishing a department of gerontology or geriatric medicine at each medical school In line with the increasing number of elderly people, it is necessary to upgrade the systems for educating and nurturing physicians engaged in healthcare and nursing care for the elderly. It is also necessary to develop the organic cooperation with other medical and nursing care professionals, such as registered nurses and care workers. At present, just approximately 30% of medical schools in Japan have a department specializing in medical care for the elderly and relevant medical education; there is an urgent need to improve the situation, as the majority of universities do not provide any such education. (4) Necessity for establishing a medical center for promoting medical care provider collaboration, multidisciplinary training and a means to increase public awareness In the medical care for the elderly, comprehensive care must be provided from the viewpoints of both healthcare and nursing care; to improve the quality of such care services, multidisciplinary collaboration and team-based medicine are indispensable. Therefore, physicians, nurses, therapists, pharmacists, dieticians, care managers, and other health care professionals who have thorough knowledge about medical care for the elderly are of utmost necessity. In reality, however, the collaboration of these health care professionals is unsatisfactory, and the degree of understanding of team-based medicine by each medical professional is low. Therefore, as in the case of the establishment of cancer centers within individual regions to promote medical care for cancer, there is a demand to nurture professionals engaged in medical care for the elderly, and to establish a core facility for the promotion of multidisciplinary collaboration and team-based medicine for each region. (5) Do the people understand the paradigm shift? Currently, not only healthcare professionals, but also many citizens seek "cure-seeking medical care" aiming at a restoration of organ function; however, surveys of the elderly often show that they want to restore independent daily activity, rather than to achieve a "cure." In contrast, in the actual medical care setting, contradictory situations prevail in which the public awareness of the shift to "cure-and-support seeking medical care" is unsatisfactory, including the fact that the majority of recipients of tertiary emergency care are elderly patients.

Contents of the proposal: The Science Council of Japan has the task to propose future visions for the Japanese aging society not only from the viewpoint of the health of each individual, but also from a broader perspective, taking into account the relationship between humans and society. Various issues related to general population aging are posing serious problems, which require prompt resolution. Although we made a number of proposals at the 21st Subcommittee for Aging, the situation has not changed satisfactorily. Accordingly, the present proposals on specific solutions were designed. (1) In a super-aged society, a paradigm shift to "cure-and-support seeking medical care" should be implemented A super-aged society will consist of an unprecedented demographic structure in which the percentage of only those people aged ≥75 years will increase in the entire population. Therefore, there is an urgent need to prepare for increasing populations of persons in need of long-term care and those who are likely to become in need of long-term care. Given the consideration that "patients are not merely sick persons, but rather living persons," a paradigm shift from conventional "cure-seeking medical care" to "cure and support-seeking medical care" must be implemented. (2) Facilitate a paradigm shift to community-oriented medical care, and promote the activity of female physicians in the medical care for the elderly A paradigm shift should be promptly facilitated by reorganizing hospital functions and establishing a community comprehensive care system for home-based care to promote the participation of the elderly by themselves in care-supporting society. To further promote the collaboration of medical care and welfare, not only persons in charge of actual regional settings, but also university schools of medicine and regional core medical institutions experienced in medical care for the elderly should take the initiative to promote home-based care and facilitate a paradigm shift to community-oriented medical care. In addition, programs should also be developed to re-educate female physicians who became housewives in order to nurture them to become facilitators of geriatric medicine. (3) Physicians who are required at local medical facilities must be nurtured through the establishment of a department of gerontology or geriatric medicine at each medical school To facilitate efficient medical care services, medical education and research, and human resources development in support of expected paradigm shifts, it is considered that a department of gerontology or geriatric medicine should be established at each medical school. Furthermore, it is necessary to allocate dedicated teachers of medical care for the elderly to all medical schools, as well as to upgrade practice-participatory drills and to collaborate with a broad range of entities, including local medical institutions, and welfare and nursing care facilities. Efforts must be made to nurture locally wanted physicians through specific efforts concerning team-based medicine. (4) Promote the establishment of centers for geriatrics and gerontology (provisional name) for medical care collaboration, multidisciplinary training, and a means to increase public awareness To promote the uniform accessibility of expertise on efficient medical care that is best suited for a super-aged society, it is necessary to build a post-graduation educational system under the initiatives of the Japan Geriatrics Society and the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology across the nation in cooperation with regional medical schools and the Japan Medical Association. Furthermore, at least one hospital serving as a center for geriatrics and gerontology should be established in each regional block (Hokkaido, Tohoku, Koshinetsu, Hokuriku/Tokai, Kinki, Chushikoku and Kyushu/Okinawa) by making the best use of existing hospitals. By establishing these centers, uniform accessibility for the quality of medical care for the elderly in each region is expected. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED).

Keywords: clinical medicine; geriatric medicine; home-based care; multidisciplinary; quality of life; super-aged society.

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Delivery of Health Care / trends*
  • Geriatrics / standards
  • Geriatrics / trends
  • Gross Domestic Product
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / trends
  • Humans
  • Japan
  • Life Expectancy / trends
  • Population Dynamics* / trends
  • Quality of Life