08/29/2012 06:11 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

Aging and Sport: A Match Made in Brazil

The London Olympics have come to an end, and the next must-see global sporting event won't occur until 2014, when the World Cup kicks off in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilians, one can only imagine, have already begun daydreaming about the glory of winning their sixth World Cup on native soil. But for all the premature fantasies and finger-crossing, Brazil must first deal with the business at hand: getting Rio ready not only for the continent's first World Cup, but also the soon-to-follow summer Olympics of 2016.

As Brazil's public and private sectors coordinate to improve Rio's infrastructure, the country has the auspicious opportunity to both meet short-term spectator needs and solve long-term infrastructure issues associated with its ballooning aging population. Sport and aging may seem like an odd marriage, but there's an undeniable connection. The World Cup and the Olympics, most essentially, celebrate and promote health, activity and physical excellence. And as the population of Brazil and the rest of the world ages at an unprecedented rate, aging, too, become a celebration of health and activity. With two billion of us around the world turning 60 within a few decades, aging in the twenty-first-century must become a time of continued physical and mental accomplishment.

A number of cities have begun to realize that urban infrastructure can become an enabling force for healthy, active aging. Taipei, Qiqihaer, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and New York City, among others, have begun developing local projects that enable older people to remain active in social and economic life. Experts have argued that these infrastructure initiatives have tremendous benefits for mental and cognitive health. As the Brazilians pour billions into Rio, they would be wise to rebuild their city to meet the needs of their older population long after the world turns its attention elsewhere.

The need for age-friendly development in Brazil is urgent. In 2010, the over-60 demographic made up 10 percent of Brazil's population. By 2050, that will total 29 percent, while the median age of Brazilians will be 45. Due to tremendous increases in longevity and persistent drops in fertility, the Brazilians are following in the footsteps of today's "oldest" countries such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, and others.

The chorus has been loud, of course, for Brazil to be smart and strategic about its infrastructure investments in Rio. A recent New York Times article pleaded, "In preparing for the World Cup and the Olympics, Rio has an opportunity to make long-term investments and integrate the favelas by providing the missing support services like education, job training, health care, day care, and sanitation." While this request makes good sense, it is incomplete. It misses the critical role of aging populations in long-term economic success in Brazil.

Indeed, in the coming decades, Brazil -- and much of the rest of the world -- will face no greater social, political and economic challenge than the aging of its population. And for Brazil, this challenge is intensified by the large portion of the aging who live in poverty. In mapping out its infrastructure strategy, Brazil would be wise to consider how aging populations -- and the aging who live in the favelas -- could contribute to the country's emerging economy. With 29 percent of its population old by 20th century standards, a 21st-century approach to aging and development could further bolster Brazil's impressive economic growth.

But what would this age-friendly development look like? At its most basic, it would follow the World Health Organization's Age-Friendly Cities guidance, which emphasizes "the importance for older peoples' access to public transport, outdoor spaces and buildings, as well as appropriate housing, community support, and health services." But it would also enable a life-course approach to healthy aging - one that would keep "old" Brazilians engaged in social and economic life.

By partnering with top universities and health professionals, Brazil could create one of the world's foremost age-friendly cities just at the time when it has the world's attention. If Rio becomes "age friendly," it would be a huge win not only for Brazil, but also for the rest of the world. No city will be more watched and scrutinized over the next few years than Rio, and age-friendly development would set the city of Carnival as a model for all the world to see.

Over the past few years, it has become nothing short of common sense that development should be "green" and "environmentally friendly." Now, it's time for Rio to show the world that "age-friendly" development is of equal importance. If you ask the bookies in Vegas, they'll tell you the odds are well in favor of the Brazilians taking the Rio World Cup. And as nice as that would be for Brazil, it is far more important for the country to keep their aging populations at the heart of their booming economy.