In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Active Aging

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Public Health Active Aging
Ina Voelcker, Louise Plouffe, Alexandre Kalache
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0157


“Active aging” emerged among other semantically similar constructs, such as successful, healthy, and productive aging to express and to promote the positive potential of older adulthood. Active aging differs from other concepts, however, because it is equally both a model of individual aging and a holistic policy approach for societies as a whole. The World Health Organization’s Active Ageing: A Policy Framework offered the first, and still most widely referenced definition of active aging: “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security over the life course in order to enhance quality of life as people age.” This core definition has since been modified by its originator, Alexandre Kalache, to add lifelong learning as a fourth dimension, underscoring the imperative for a continual updating of skills at all ages. Several principles to guide active aging policy action have been articulated, notably by WHO, Alan Walker, and the International Longevity Centre Brazil. A life-course perspective is a central focus to active aging. It stresses a rights-based approach that embraces all age groups, not purely older adults. The concept encompasses the full range of meaningful endeavor, not only physical activity and employment. It applies to persons at all stages of the life course, including those who are frail, dependent, or dying. Active aging promotes personal autonomy, independence, interdependence, and intergenerational solidarity. It combines top-down policy action with bottom-up empowerment by citizens in policy decisions. It promotes individual responsibility but avoids blaming vulnerable persons who may have been excluded from opportunities throughout life. The focus of active aging policy is multisectoral action designed to positively influence the economic, social, behavioral, environmental, and health policy determinants that enhance or hinder quality of life in all settings. Despite the clear universality of the theoretical model, some researchers have criticized the narrow focus taken by some OECD countries in particular, for their concentration on economically productive activity as well as their perceived imposition of a normative model of old age that excludes marginalized groups and cultural minorities, and that ignores other definitions and expressions of activity. Active aging as a construct has strongly influenced policy in many countries on every continent. In addition to influencing national and state policy strategies, active aging also underpins other successful policy initiatives, notably age-friendly primary health care and the global age-friendly cities and communities’ initiative.

General Overviews

The two major thinkers associated with active aging as a policy construct provide overviews covering the emergence of the concept and its translation from an abstract idea to policy action and its future direction, from their separate yet converging perspectives. From the view of global public health, Kalache 2016 offers a personal account of the evolution of the concept of active aging within WHO and the realignment from a pure focus on health to one that also encompasses participation, security, and lifelong learning. Written by a social gerontologist, Walker 2016 describes the conceptual trajectory from successful and healthy aging to a more inclusive and policy-relevant definition. World Health Organization 2002 is the landmark policy framework of active aging. It is targeted to policymakers but is accessible to a general public. It provides the first comprehensive definition of active aging, describes the multisectoral determinants, and proposes specific policy recommendations. Addressing a South Australian policy audience, Kalache 2013 adds new elements to World Health Organization 2002, including lifelong learning and more complex models of intertwining social roles in an active aging life course. International Longevity Centre Brazil 2015 presents a comprehensive update of the active aging model that incorporates intersecting demographic, social, and economic trends, new evidence regarding the determinants of active aging, and targeted policy advice. A second major reference is Walker 2002, which articulates seven principles to guide practical implementation of active aging policy. The author returns to these principles in subsequent writings. Walker and Maltby 2012 analyzes the current use of “active aging” in the EU to critique a narrow interpretation of the model. Fernández-Ballesteros, et al. 2013 features ten articles that address theoretical and empirical issues associated with the concept and present applications of the active aging construct to public health and social policies in several countries.

  • Fernández-Ballesteros, R., J. M. Robine, A. Walker, and A. Kalache, eds. 2013. Special issue: Active aging: A global goal. Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research 2013.

    DOI: 10.1155/2013/298012

    For advanced students, scholars, and policy readers, this special journal issue provides theoretical, policy-focused, and empirical articles on active aging, with much cross-national data.

  • International Longevity Centre Brazil. 2015. Active ageing: A policy framework in response to the longevity revolution. Rio de Janeiro: International Longevity Centre Brazil.

    This 100-page publication revises and updates the World Health Organization 2002 policy framework and incorporates and expands upon the ideas expressed by Kalache 2013. Directed to academia, governments, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the media and the private sector, the report is accessible to a general public while retaining full scholarly references.

  • Kalache, A. 2013. The longevity revolution: Creating a society for all ages. Adelaide: Government of South Australia.

    The product of the Adelaide Thinker in Residence Programme on longevity, this publication is directed to both a public and policy readership. It revisits the World Health Organization 2002 strategy with a particular focus on South Australia and discusses contemporary social trends relevant to the state in addition to presenting an elaborate model of evolving roles over the life course. It provides many recommendations to guide state policy in South Australia toward creating a society for all ages.

  • Kalache, A. 2016. Active ageing and age-friendly cities—A personal account. In Age-friendly cities and communities in international comparison. International Perspectives on Aging 14. Edited by Thibauld Moulaert and Suzanne Garon, 65–77. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    Gives an account of the evolution of the WHO framework that arose out of new thinking on health promotion and a broader understanding of health in the 1990s. It explains how active aging informed major WHO policy directions for primary health care and urban environments.

  • Walker, A. 2002. A strategy for active ageing. International Social Security Review 55.1: 121–139.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-246X.00118

    This essential reference corroborates the World Health Organization 2002 framework and argues for an intersectoral approach to develop responses to population aging in industrialized countries. It outlines core principles that need to be incorporated in order to frame effective policy, and the author returns to this in later writings.

  • Walker, A. 2016. Population ageing from a global and theoretical perspective: European lessons on active ageing. In Age-friendly cities and communities in international comparison. International Perspectives on Aging 14. Edited by Thibauld Moulaert and Suzanne Garon, 47–64. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    An accessible introduction for new lay, scholarly, and professional readers by one of the most widely acclaimed proponents of active aging as a policy construct in Europe, this chapter reviews its emergence, rationale, and current status as well as barriers to implementation.

  • Walker, A., and T. Maltby. 2012. Active ageing: A strategic policy solution to demographic ageing in the European Union. International Journal of Social Welfare 21.Suppl. 1: 117–130.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2012.00871.x

    For policy readers, this article analyses the “active aging” discourse in EU policies and critiques its narrow economic focus. It introduces an alternative model of roles over the life course into the active aging strategy, which is further developed by Kalache 2013 and International Longevity Centre Brazil 2015.

  • World Health Organization. 2002. Active ageing: A policy framework. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

    Original articulation of the policy construct by WHO. Concise and accessible to both policy and lay audiences, this framework has inspired supranational, national, regional, and local policies since its launch and is an essential reference. The publication continues to be a relevant source for those seeking a framework to guide health, social, and economic policy in an aging world.

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