Getting older in Poland: European healthcare challenges

Elderly couple, Warsaw. [Magdalena Roeseler/Flickr]

Poles are getting older. By 2050, 33% of Poland’s population will be over 65 years old, and 10% over 80. It reflects a broader trend in the whole Europe: people are living longer. EURACTIV Poland reports.

High medical costs are one of the most visible effects of an aging society, and – depending on where you live – ineffective healthcare.

“Making sure people enter their old age in good health has measurable economic benefits for the society as a whole,” says Micha? Szczerba, a Polish MP.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean they cost less, he pointed out. “An average public expenditure on treatment of a person aged 65+ is three times higher than an average expenditure on treatment of a person in working age,” Szczerba told an event organised by on 14 May in partnership with the European Parliament Information Office in Poland and MSD Polska.

In fact, the continent is a victim of a “double-aging” syndrome. It means that people both live longer and have less children. The syndrome is a harbinger of a demographic crisis. One of the areas that will be hit hardest is the treatment of chronic diseases. A NATPOL survey shows that the number of Poles suffering from diabetes will increase by 2.5% annually, and from hypertension, by 2%.

Chronic diseases

Poland is a case in point. Despite the changes wrought by 25 years of democracy, it still has not managed to get cardiovascular diseases under the same level of control as it is in Western Europe. Over a quarter of working age Poles, and the disabled, are killed by the illness annually.

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Diabetes is also taking a heavy toll on European society. It was the first non-transmissible disease that was declared to be an epidemic by the UN. 300 million people were suffering from it in 2010, and by 2035, that number will double, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

Age-related diseases

In addition to metabolic diseases, there are also age-related diseases, and cancer. These kinds of diseases require not only treatment, but, over time, long-term and costly patient care. For example, at present, there are 400,000 cases of Alzheimer’s disease in Poland. In 2050, there will be over a million of them.

Older people will also provide unique challenges for treatment. Professor Jaros?aw Fedorowski, of the European Federation of Hospitals HOPE, notes that many elderly people suffer from numerous illnesses and conditions, simultaneously. This requires a more holistic approach than the current one, which often fails to see a patient as a person with several problems.

Proper treatment and healthcare options are necessary to provide a proper quality of life to the population. Poland’s recent raising of the retirement age has sparked a discussion on this issue, because a significant number of people lose their ability to work (and therefore sustain themselves) before retirement.

A lack of such care is one of the reasons behind a high number of suicides in the over 55 age group. Poland is among the top six countries in Europe in this category. The European average is 18 attempts per 100,000 people, while in Poland it is almost twice as high, with 29 attempts. An aging population, and a decreasing number of children, may mean that this number for Poland will continue to rise.

Policy coordination

The main goal should be improving the health of Poles. Preventing diseases will allow not only lessen the burden on the healthcare system, and increase the availability of doctors and facilities for those who are ill. It will improve their general quality of life.

But the proper prevention of diseases is not as simple as it sounds, especially from a policy perspective. It would require good coordination between various ministries: health, education, science, and labour. All of them are responsible for different aspects of life of the citizens that impact their health.

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Schools needs to teach children both how to live healthy lives and how to take care of themselves when they are older. They also need to avoid setting a bad example for children. Therefore, starting in September, Poland will ban junk food from schools.

Science and health ministries can also cooperate in diagnosing and predict future challenges to the health system – and how to avoid them. Labour ministries have to provide an adequate framework for people to work in through specifying and enforcing healthy labour standards, administering social security, and a labour law that takes into account a lengthening lifespan.


Currently, prevention is not always the focus of health policy. In Poland, “less than 1% of the healthcare budget is devoted to that goal”, says Dobrawa Biadun from the Polish Confederation of Private Employers, Lewiatan.

As Professor Marek Góra from the Warsaw School of Economics said, “People are not fools. They need information to make proper decisions about their life and health.” He added that one difference between well and poorly educated people he sees in various studies on health is their level of health awareness. “People with university degrees realise much better how important a proper diet and regular check-ups are,” Góra explained.

People will live longer. But for those longer years to be actually happy and wholesome, the EU and the member states have to provide their population with information and, if required, help to make them healthy and able to appreciate their golden years.

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