The Gray Wave. The Silver Tsunami. The Agequake.

Aging societies have been on the horizon for decades, not just in the United States but also around the world. The driving forces are well-established: falling fertility rates (by far, the most important factor), longer life expectancy, and the maturing of large cohorts such as the baby boomers in the U.S.

But what demographers once thought would be the passage of a single large generation — like the postwar boomers — through the age brackets is now predicted to be a permanent fixture of many developed societies. Age distributions in many countries once formed a pyramid—with billions of young people filling out the bottom and dwindling numbers of older survivors at the apex. Soon, however, this distribution may more nearly resemble a square, with roughly equal numbers of people in each age group.

Imagining what this “new normal” will mean for developed and developing societies alike raises profound questions. How will societies age successfully? Will most people live longer lives but be sicker for more years than in prior generations?

This issue of Harvard Public Health examines how individuals and societies will navigate the previously uncharted waters of rapidly aging societies. Among the experts interviewed are faculty from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, in fields ranging from social epidemiology to health policy to biochemistry.

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