This story appears in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
China is on the brink of a huge demographic shift. Over the next two decades, an unprecedented baby boom from the 1960s will age into “the largest number of elderly ever in the history of China,” says Yu Xie, a Princeton University sociologist who studies the country.
While the government prepares for strains on the medical system, members of this older generation—more educated and mobile than those before—are taking health into their own hands. “They don’t see how they can count on government for health care and services,” says Xie, so “they turn to traditional methods.”
Often this takes the form of widely accepted alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and herbal remedies. But sometimes, he warns, it leads people “to look for easy and quick solutions.”
Increasingly, Chinese are leaving polluted cities and bringing their ailments to “longevity villages,” where the relatively clean air and water are touted as miracle cures. Bama, an autonomous county renowned for its many centenarians, now reportedly receives at least two million visitors a year. Cancer patients and stroke victims travel there to undergo natural treatments but often find peddlers of shady remedies.
Rural China has embraced the financial potential of this type of ecotourism, says Stanford economist Karen Eggleston. Without regulation of treatments, though, an aging population is at risk. “There’s a yearning to find the secret to longevity that people around the world search for,” she says. “But that leaves people prey to those out for a fast buck.”