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Pollution is leading to ageing populations – how can urban environments respond?

What’s happening? Endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment are driving an increase in infertility, according to a book co-authored by Mount Sinai Medical School epidemiologist Shanna Swan. She notes that sperm counts have been declining and projections suggest by 2045 the average male may have no viable sperm. Increasing miscarriage rates and impaired fecundity have been seen, even among younger women. There has also been a rise in genital abnormalities among boys, alongside puberty appearing earlier in girls. Swan states that chemicals including phthalates and bisphenol-A are disrupting hormonal balances, adding that other factors such as smoking and obesity are having an impact on fertility. (Axios)

Some background – It’s not just the environmental chemicals Swan identifies that are having an impact – air pollution is driving fertility rates down too. Additionally, more people are deciding against having children for a variety of reasons, among them concerns about climate change.

Why does this matter? Fewer people being born is one of the factors leading to ageing populations, and it’s estimated that 22% of the global population – two billion people – will be over 60 by 2050. Undoubtedly this raises the burden of illness, and highlights the need for us to take better care of ourselves and our finances to not face deprivation in our later years. There’s more than health and wealth to consider, however.

Age-friendly cities – Our cities need to adapt to account for the needs of an ageing population. Simple issues, such as uneven paving, lack of benches, few public toilets, scarcity of handrails on stairs and short times for crossing busy roads all make the urban environment a harder place for older people get around in.

Older people need to continue to feel confident about getting outside, or they face the risk of loneliness and isolation. Urban designers can help achieve this by solving the above problems, and by improving street lighting and public transport, designing easy-to-navigate systems, making sure public buildings are more accessible and keeping pavements clear of moving hazards such bicycles and scooters.

Breathe easy – Another vital fact to consider is that older people are vulnerable to the impact of air pollution as it can cause lung and heart conditions and exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, which are linked to dementia. To address this issue, easily accessible green spaces are a must. Not only are they good for mental health, they can also help mitigate the effects of air pollution.

Lateral thought – Older people not only need physically improved communities to live in, they also need to feel socially welcomed by them. Reducing the stigma and discrimination associated with ageing is another action needed to ensure urban and other environments are truly age-friendly.

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Nicola Watts

Health Care Curator

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