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Ann Geriatr Med Res > Volume 25(2); 2021 > Article
Baek, Lee, Jung, and Jang: Geriatrics Fact Sheet in Korea 2021


South Korea became an aged society in 2017 and is predicted to become a super-aged society by 2025. Therefore, knowing the trends among older adults and identifying the geriatric burden are crucial for both healthcare professionals and policymakers. We previously summarized the general health and socioeconomic profiles of Korean older adults from the 2017 National Survey of Living Conditions and Welfare Needs of Older Koreans. In this update, we briefly summarized the results of the 2020 National Survey of Living Conditions and Welfare Needs of Older Koreans by categorizing them according to their general aging profile, socioeconomic status, lifestyle, and health status. In addition, we reviewed recent updates in the field of frailty and sarcopenia from population-based community cohorts in Korea. We hope this study will serve as a current reference for nationwide statistical data on common clinical and social parameters used in geriatrics and gerontology.


While the global population is aging, South Korea is one of the most rapidly aging societies worldwide. It took 17 years for Korea to transition to an aged society from an aging society, defined as proportions of the population aged 65 years or older of ≥14.0% and 7.0%, respectively, while Japan took 24 years for the same transition.1) More strikingly, Korea is expected to become a super-aged society, defined as a proportion of the population aged 65 years or older of ≥20.0%, in 2025. This prominent trend of population aging in Korea has been, to some degree, attributed to rapid economic development that accompanies the fast-growing life expectancy at birth with the establishment of modern healthcare systems after the Korean War (1950–1953) and the lowest birth rate among developed countries.2,3)
Many potential social and economic challenges arise from the unprecedented speed of population aging in Korea. Human aging biology leads to an increased prevalence of multiple chronic conditions, frailty, and functional decline in older adults.4,5) Therefore, a given society must prepare to serve its aging population in a multifaceted manner, from developing fiscal policies to establishing healthcare models that are specially designed for older multimorbid individuals.6) While many policies have been developed to tackle the aging population, the sustainability and viability of modern welfare systems and government-operated healthcare systems that were originally proposed in Western countries have not been tested at this extreme pace of aging in Korea.
To establish future care policies for the older population, it is necessary to understand the dynamically changing social characteristics and health status of these people. In 2019, we summarized the general health and socioeconomic profiles of Korean older adults based on an analysis of data from the 2017 National Survey of Living Conditions and Welfare Needs of Older Koreans.7) The present brief review updated the previous study from the preliminary results of the latest National Survey of Living Conditions and Welfare Needs of Older Koreans performed in 2020 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Republic of Korea.8) This survey was conducted for 9 months, from March 2020 to November 2020, and encompassed 969 nationwide investigation districts and 10,097 older adults aged over 65 years. The survey investigated the general information, family and social relationships, health and functional status, economic status, leisure and social activity, and living environment of this population. For disabilities, we used data from the 2019 Long-Term Care Status Survey, a triennial study started in 2019 to assess the population characteristics of long-term care insurance (LTCI) and related services.9) In addition, we provided a brief updated summary of recent literature from population-based studies on age-related conditions in Korea.10) Based on this study, we intended to provide an up-to-date reference for Korean nationwide statistical data on common clinical and social parameters used in research on geriatrics and gerontology.


According to the Korean statistics in 2019, the population aged 65 years or older was 7,746 thousand persons, accounting for 15.5% of the total population, a 4.8% increase compared to the previous year.11) The overall life expectancy at birth was 86.3 years in women and 80.0 years in men. In particular, the remaining life expectancies at 60 years of age were 28.1 and 23.3 years for women and men, respectively, which were an increase of 0.6 and 0.5 years, respectively, from 2018.12)


The private income of older adults per year has steadily increased to US$13,939 compared to US$10,384 (2017) and US$8,430 (2014). More than one-third (36.9%) of the total older adults and 55% of older adults aged 65–69 years were currently working. The proportion of employee/self-employment income and private pension increased significantly, which subsequently increased the chance of financial independence. Most older adults (78.2%) lived as a single household: living alone or living with a spouse with frequent (more than once weekly) contact with their children, friends, and neighbors. The level of education had also increased markedly; the uneducated group shrank to 10.6% (33% in 2008), while the proportion of older adults with education beyond high school increased to 34.3% (17.2% in 2008) (Table 1).8)


The most important lifetime activities were hobbies and leisure (37.7%), followed by economic (25.4%), social (19.3%), religious (14.1%), volunteer (1.7%), and learning activity (0.9%). Smartphone users accounted for 56.4% of the population, and the ability to use smartphones was far superior in young-old adults. For instance, 92.4% of individuals aged 65–69 years could send text messages compared to 19.9% among those aged 85 years and older. Most (83.8%) older Korean adults preferred to live in the same place, and more than half (56.5%) of the adults also desired aging-in-place even with an impaired mobility status. The level of overall satisfaction with life was 49.6%. Satisfaction with health status increased considerably from 37.1% (2017) to 50.5% (2020). The satisfaction with economic status also increased from 28.8% (2017) to 37.4% (2020) (Table 2).8) However, these trends should be interpreted with some caution with possible cohort or period effects along with drastic social changes.


Common Medical Conditions

The average number of chronic diseases in Korean older adults was 1.9, with 84% of the population having more than one chronic disease. In comparison, 89.5% of the older population had one or more chronic diseases, 73% had two or more, and 51% had three or more in 2017. The top five chronic diseases were hypertension (56.8%–64.4%), diabetes mellitus (24.2%–29.0%), dyslipidemia (17.1%–38.9%), osteoarthritis (16.5%), and lumbar pain or sciatica (10%). Notably, the rate of depressive symptoms steadily decreased to 13.5% compared to 30.8% in 2008 and 21.1% in 2017 (Table 3).8,13-15)
Among the recipients of LTCI, the mean number of chronic diseases was 3.4 according to the 2019 Long-Term Care Status Survey.9) In this population, the common diseases included hypertension (60.3%), dementia (57.2%), diabetes (29.3%), arthritis (27.8%), and stroke (25.8%). LTCI recipients took a mean of 9.8 daily medications, and 79.4% of them took five or more medications per day.

Functional and Cognitive Status

Functional disability was assessed based on activities of daily living (ADL) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADL). Approximately 6.6% of older adults had limitations only in IADL, while 5.6% of older adults had limitations in both ADL and IADL. The prevalence of cognitive impairment increased to 25.3% compared to 14.5% in 2017. In addition, the prevalence of dementia was 10.33%, and increased with age (Table 3).8,16)

Disabilities and Healthcare Needs

The proportion of LTCI recipients has been increasing in the total Korean population, from 1.0% in 2016 to 1.3% in 2018, according to the 2019 Long-Term Care Status Survey.9) Among the recipients, 83.5% of the population used at least one long-term care service among home-based and institution-based services, at a ratio of 7:3. Regarding eligibility levels, 4.5%, 11.4%, 32.2%, 43.8%, and 7.7% of recipients were classified into levels 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, respectively.10)
Among all LTCI recipients, the mean number of clinic visits for the last quarter was 5.3, with 11.1% of recipients visiting clinics more than 10 times in the last quarter. In addition, 26.8% of the recipients had experienced hospitalization within the last 12 months, with 12.6% of the recipients experiencing institutionalization to convalescent hospitals.

Frailty Status

The prevalence of frailty in Korean older adults ranged from 2.5% to 55.7%, as defined by the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS) frailty phenotype, frailty index, and other operational measures (Table 4).17-30) Recent Korean studies have shown that either frailty index, phenotype model, or physical performance measures could similarly identify older individuals at risk for geriatric adverse outcomes.18) In addition, gait speed was inversely related to the frailty index and predicted adverse health outcomes (mortality or institutionalization).31) The Timed Up and Go test was associated with both the CHS frailty phenotype and total Short Physical Performance Battery.20)


The prevalence of sarcopenia ranges from 4% to 46.8% according to different diagnostic criteria. Recent population-based studies have investigated diagnostic tools for sarcopenia (Table 5).32-39) Calf circumference has been proposed as a surrogate marker of muscle mass because it was well correlated not only with appendicular muscle mass and skeletal muscle index but also with physical function.40) In addition, skeletal muscle radiodensity measured using computed tomography at the third lumbar vertebra level was positively associated with jump power, which was positively correlated with sarcopenia, as defined by the European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People (EWGSOP2).34) Recently, a novel sarcopenia phenotype score (SPS), which is the sum of each abnormal sarcopenic marker (low muscle mass, low handgrip strength, and slow gait speed), was proposed in the Aging Study of PyeongChang Rural Area cohort. The SPS showed better dose-response predictability of adverse health outcomes (mortality and institutionalization) compared to the pre-existing sarcopenia definition, especially the revised definition from the EWGSOP.41)


Mostly living as a single household, Korean older adults had higher education levels and higher private income compared with that reported previously. In contrast to previous reports from the 2017 survey, we noted the increasing adoption of information technology in the older population. Moreover, economic status is improving in this population. We also observed trends in the older population of caring for their own health and having improved satisfaction with their general health. Healthcare providers and policymakers should reflect these current characteristics of older adults to pursue healthy aging and establish an age-friendly healthcare environment.



The researchers claim no conflicts of interest.




Conceptualization, JYB, IYJ; Data curation, JYB, HWJ, IYJ; Investigation, JYB, HWJ; Methodology, JYB, IYJ; Supervision, HWJ, EJL, IYJ; Writing-original draft, JYB, HWJ; Writing-review & editing, JYB, HWJ, EJL, IYJ.

Table 1.
Socioeconomic status of older Koreans
Index Unit (%)
2017 2020
Annual private income (US dollar) 10,384 13,939
Type of income
 Employee income 13.3 24.1
 Self-employment income 13.6 17.1
 Property income 12.2 11.0
 Private transfer 22.0 13.9
 Public transfer 36.9 27.5
 Private pension 0.8 6.3
Participation in economic activities
 Currently working 30.9 36.9
 Previously worked 59.3 49.5
 Never worked 9.8 13.6
Residence type
 Living alone 23.6 19.8
 Living with spouse 48.4 58.4
 Living with children 23.7 20.1
 Other 4.4 1.7
Social networka)
 Children (come-and-go) 38.0 16.9
 Children (contact) 81.0 63.5
 Friends or neighbors (contact) 64.2 71.0
 Relatives (contact) 16.8 20.3
Level of education
 Uneducated (illiterate) 24.3 10.6
 Elementary school (≤6 y) 34.1 31.7
 Middle school (>6 and ≤9 y) 16.9 23.3
 High school (>9 and ≤12 y) 17.3 28.4
 Beyond college (>12 y) 7.5 5.9

a) More than once a week.

Table 2.
Lifestyle of older Koreans
Index Unit (%)
2017 2020
Most important activity in current life NA -
 Hobby and leisure activity - 37.7
 Economic activity - 25.4
 Social activity - 19.3
 Religious activity - 14.1
 Volunteer activity - 1.7
 Learning activity - 0.9
Smartphone user NA 56.4
Preferred residency (healthy state)
 Living in the same place 88.6 83.8
 Moving to a better environment 11.4 16.1
Preferred residency (dysmobility state)
 Living in the same place 57.6 56.5
 Living with spouse/children/siblings 10.3 7.2
 Living close to children/siblings - 4.9
 Older adult care facility 31.9 31.3
Life satisfaction
 General NA 49.6
 Health status 37.1 50.5
 Economic status 28.8 37.4
Health awareness
 Healthy 37.1 49.3
 Neither healthy nor unhealthy 23.3 30.8
 Unhealthy 39.7 19.9

NA, not applicable.

Table 3.
Health status and common comorbidities of Korean older adults
Index Unit (%) Reference
Number of chronic diseases 8)
 ≥1 84
 ≥2 54.9
 ≥3 27.8
Type of chronic disease (top 5)
 Hypertension 56.8–64.4 8,13,14)
  60–69 y 51.5
  ≥70 y 67.2
 Diabetes mellitus 24.2–29.0 8,13,15)
  60–69 y 24.2
  ≥70 y 31
 Dyslipidemia 17.1–38.9 8,13)
  60–69 y 42.8
  ≥70 y 35.1
 Osteoarthritis 16.5 8)
 Lumbar pain and sciatica 10 8)
Cognitive decline 25.3 8)
 Dementia 10.3 16)
  65–69 y 4.2
  80–74 y 8.9
  75–79 y 22
  80–84 y 27
  ≥85 y 35.2
Depressive symptoms 13.5 8)
 Male 10.9
 Female 15.5
Functional status 8)
 IADL disability 6.6
 ADL+IADL disability 5.6

ADL, activities of daily living; IADL, instrumental activities of daily living.

Table 4.
Prevalence of frailty in Korean older adults
Frailty assessment Prevalence (%) Settings Regions
Publication year Study
Urban Rural
Frailty screening CFS 51.0 Hospital (inpatients) NA NA 2021 Ko et al.23)
45.1 Hospital (inpatients) NA NA 2021 Han et al.17)
FRAIL questionnaire 27.0 Community 2016 Jung et al.19)
12.4 Community 2018 Kim et al.22)
31.2 Hospital (inpatients) NA NA 2021 Han et al.17)
KFI 21.3 Community 2010 Hwang et al.30)
9.1 Community 2018 Kim et al.22)
CSHA frailty definition 20.2 Community 2017 Ko et al.24)
TUGa) 38.4 Community 2020 Lee et al.25)
SPPBb) 18.2 Community 2020 Jung et al.20)
55.7 Community 2021 Jung et al.18)
Frailty phenotype SOF 2.5 Community 2018 Kim et al.22)
CHS phenotype 8.4 Community 2008 Park et al.28)
13.2 Community 2014 Jung et al.21)
17.0 Community 2016 Jung et al.19)
11.4 Community 2018 Kim et al.22)
7.7 Community 2020 Lee et al.26)
Frailty index KFI-PC 17.5 Community 2020 Won et al.29)
Frailty index 26.3 Community 2021 Jung et al.18)
Social frailty Social frailty index 20.5 Community 2019 Park et al.27)
Social deficit level 32.4 Community 2020 Lee et al.26)

CFS, Clinical Frailty Scale; CHS, Cardiovascular Health Study; CSHA, Canadian Study of Health and Aging; KFI, Korean Frailty Index; KFI-PC, Korean Frailty Index for Primary Care; K-FRAIL, Korean version of the Fatigue, Resistance, Ambulation, Illness, and Loss of weight scale; SOF, Study of Osteoporotic Fracture; TUG, Timed Up and Go test; NA, not available.

a) 10 seconds or longer was regarded as frail.

b) 9 seconds or less was regarded as frail.

Table 5.
Prevalence of sarcopenia in Korean older adults
Criteria Prevalence (%) Data sources Regions
Publication year Study
Urban Rural
Skeletal muscle (ASM/height² <1 SD) Total 5.2 Community - 2010 Lim et al.39)
Male 6.3
Female 4.1
Skeletal muscle (ASM/height² <2 SD) Total 4.0 Community 2015 Kim et al.36)
Male 9.3
Female 0.2
Male 8.8
Female 8.8
Low handgrip strength (<26 kg, male and <18 kg, female) Total 46.8 Community 2017 Oh et al.32)
Male 33.2
Female 57.4
AWGS (2014) Total 16.5 Community - 2018 Jang et al.35)
Male 14.0
Female 18.5
AWGS (2014) Total 10.2 Community 2018 Kim et al.38)
Male 11.4
Female 9.1
AWGS (2014) Total 16.1 Community - 2019 Cha et al.33)
EWGSOP (2010) Total 8.8 Community - 2015 Kim et al.36)
Male -
Female -
EWGSOP (2010) Total 20.8 Community 2019 Kim et al.37)
Male 25.5
Female 16.2
EWGSOP2 (2019) Total 9.3 Community 2019 Kim et al.37)
Male 11.9
Female 6.7
EWGSOP2 (2019) Total 14.7 Community 2021 Hong et al.34)
Male -
Female -

ASM, appendicular skeletal muscle; AWGS, Asian Working Group for sarcopenia; EWGSOP, European Working Group on Sarcopenia in Older People.


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