Europe headed for crisis with forecast that third of population will be over 60 by 2050

European goverments should start preparing now for the health care costs of a rapidly aging population one third of which will be over 60 by 2050 in a region already trying to cope with a looming shortage of pension funds, according to a report published Wednesday.

The report by the charities International Longevity Centre-UK and The Merck Company Foundation warned that there were already increases in a litany of ailments ranging from strokes to heart disease, cancer and cataracts.

The report is the latest indication of a trend that some experts believe will also cut into Europe's global economic competitiveness, as labor forces shrink and face ever-greater difficulties of caring for the masses of the infirm and retired.

"We must recognize that they (the elderly) are a resource to the community and so we must plan for their needs equal access to health care, good mental health, careers," said Sally Greengross, executive director of the International Longevity Centre-UK.

The number of Alzheimer's disease cases in Europe currently at 5.5 million will double in the next 50 years while numbers of depressed seniors were also expected to rise. Depression affects between 10 and 15 percent of the population over 65, and seniors with depression are two to three times more likely to have two or more chronic illnesses than those without depression, the report said.

Depression is also the major cause of suicide in European seniors, the report said, with rates of suicide and self harm about 26 percent higher in Europeans over 65 than amongst the 25 to 64 age groups, the report said.

The aging of the population and the fact that people are living longer has become an increasing concern all over the world, especially in advanced economies.

As the work force ages and birthrates plummet, there is less money going into pension systems and millions of people looking to retirement. With fewer young people joining the work force, the postwar generation that is about to retire can't count on those still on the job to keep pensions funded.

In Germany, there have been increasing concerns that at the current rate of reproduction the population will shrink dramatically.

According to Germany's Federal Statistics Agency, the country had 82.5 million people as of 2003 and that number is expected to rise to a peak of 83 million by 2013. From then to 2050, the number of Germans is expected to decline to its 1963 level of about 75 million.

In Greece, pensions and health care are costing the country nearly 5 percent of gross domestic product, the privately held Alpha Bank reported earlier this year. That figure is expected to rise to 11.1 percent of GDP by 2030 unless the system is reformed.

The Netherlands faces similar problems in financing the rising cost of state benefits for its aging population. The government's Statistics Netherlands has said that the number of people aged 65 or over in that country will double by 2040 from its current 2 million, reports AP.

O.Ch.