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Population ageing: a global health crisis?
Population ageing: a global health crisis?

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3 So, what is global health?

The first step to understanding global health is to ask what we mean by health. You may already be familiar with the WHO definition of health as ‘a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO, 2006, p. 1). This definition therefore goes beyond ‘scientific’ biological conceptions of health, and emphasises the wide range of contributing factors, such as social and environmental influences on health.

This emphasis on the influences on health is also in the concept of global health. Although this concept has increased in popularity over the past decade, its meaning often remains ambiguous, with many using the term undefined. Drawing on the work of Koplan and colleagues (2009), global health can be seen as an area of study, research and practice that focuses on people’s health across the globe, in high-, middle- and low-income countries alike, and recognises that health is influenced by issues that surpass national boundaries.

Activity 3 Global health – no boundaries

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Read the following two short case studies and answer the question that follows:


Adole lives in compound housing with other female relatives, including her daughter and grandchildren, in Accra, the capital of Ghana. She is 72 and although she has worked for most of her life, she does not receive a pension and now relies on her family to support her. She provides childcare for her grandchildren while her daughter works. She has recently started to experience hearing problems. Although Adole is registered with the National Health Insurance Scheme (implemented in Ghana in 2003), she would not be entitled to hearing aids should she be diagnosed with hearing loss.


Selim is a gay German pensioner aged 74, living alone. He was born in eastern Turkey and migrated to Berlin, Germany, with his family for work. Throughout his working life he always managed to find work that enabled him to earn an above average income and live in his own apartment. However, as a gay migrant Muslim man he has found it hard to be accepted by his family and the predominantly Turkish community in which he lives. Although he increasingly finds he has nobody to turn to for support, he is reluctant to use state services.

What factors do you think have been influential on Adole’s and Selim’s health? Note them below.

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You might have thought about family and community support, access to medical care, income and gender. Are there any other factors you have in addition to this list? Your list will show that even though people live in very different parts of the world and have very different lives, their environments share some common features that shape their health and their lives.

There is a recognition within the concept of global health that influences on health do not respect national boundaries. This has implications for how health issues are addressed. Work on global health emphasises that there is a need for transnational collaboration in relation to research, and action across all sectors to prevent ill health and promote health for all. Therefore, global health is about:

  • worldwide health improvement (for example, reducing infant and child mortality across the world)
  • reduction of disparities (for example, reducing inequalities between urban and rural areas in different countries)
  • promotion of health equity (for example, ensuring everyone has access to healthcare)
  • protection against global threats that disregard national borders (for example, wars and natural disasters).