Huge strides in life expectancy worldwide are bringing new challenges that come with increased longevity, the Dutch health minister told VOA this week.

“If you look at it from a global perspective, we’ve seen that over the past 25 years, on average we added more than five years of global life expectancy,” Ernst Kuipers, Dutch minister of health, welfare and sport, noted during a stop in Washington.

Looking at it another way, the former internist continued, “It actually means that for more than 20 years in a row, every week we added more than a day to the life expectancy of our world population. That is huge!”

Kuipers and a Dutch delegation co-led by the country’s minister of economy are in the U.S. to take part in a trade fair focused on international health and life sciences in Boston.

The Dutch are known to be the tallest people in the world and rank high in the world longevity list. Kuipers looked at the global picture when discussing the worldwide jump in life expectancy in the past quarter century.

While clean water supply, improved hygiene, sanitation conditions, access to vaccines, medicines and medical treatments have contributed to rising life expectancy in low-income countries, breakthroughs in many areas of life sciences have helped prolong life in higher-income countries, he pointed out.

“For example, new drugs in cancer treatment, newly developed interventions to treat cardiovascular diseases, and also improvement in public health.”

The good news about longevity aside, the former doctor pointed out some of the challenges that come with longer lifespans.

“We have an aging population [in the Netherlands], like in most places. People tend to get older, but they live longer usually with certain [health] conditions, with reduced mobility, etc., very similar to here,” Kuipers said.

Kuipers said his country is also experiencing a shortage in health care personnel, even as the number of working men and women affiliated with the health care industry takes up an increasing percentage of the workforce.

“If you look at the Netherlands, at the moment, one out of every six people with a job works in health care,” he said. That figure includes not just nurses or physicians, but also those serving the health care industry in human resources, finance and legal matters.

If the current pattern continues, one in five Dutch jobs will be related to health care by the year 2030, and that number will increase to one in four by the year 2040. Kuipers said this pattern will be very, very difficult, if not impossible, to sustain, “simply because we’re also going to need people in other areas of society.”

Given that health care is very labor intensive, Kuipers said governments and societies have no choice but to think of ways to meet the demands in a different, yet still effective way, to successfully cope with changing demographics.

In addition to the shortage of manpower, increased life expectancy also requires more money to care for the elderly, causing each country and government to think harder about budget priorities.

“Like the U.S., we have many burning issues, whether it’s energy transmission, preparation for climate change, infrastructure, you name it – the question of how to deliver and provide high-quality, good-access care to everyone while also limiting the increase in budget, that is very, very relevant, like it is here,” the Dutch minister said.

The Netherlands has universal health insurance and caps most people’s out of pocket expenses at 385 euros a year, a little more than 400 U.S. dollars a year.

“So far we [the country as a whole] can still afford this,” he said, “but it’s a continuous debate.”

The problem is especially acute in the case of certain very expensive drugs, the cost of which is increasing “very, very rapidly” and putting the “solidarity underlying our system” under pressure, the minister said.

He cited “orphan drugs,” which are needed by only a small number of people but are often a matter of life and death for those patients.

Kuipers and the Dutch delegation are among over 10,000 health science professionals and government officials from around the world who gathered in Boston this week to exchange ideas and find out the latest in health science at a biotech trade fair put together by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.