The global population is aging. People in the developed world have fewer children than their ancestors did. In the U.S. the baby boomer generation is retiring by the millions. At the same time, society is demanding greater access to health care. Medical progress makes a wider variety of conditions and diseases treatable.

All these factors combine to mean one thing: The health care sector is an excellent place to invest for the long run. 

But not just any health care stock is a good investment by default. Let's look at three high-quality dividend-paying health care businesses.

The first has a long history. It has paid dividends since 1924 and has paid increasing dividends for 44 consecutive years. This makes the company one of only 50 Dividend Aristocrats, stocks with 25-plus years of dividend increases.

The next stock analyzed has an even longer dividend streak. In fact, it is a Dividend King, one of only 18 stocks with 50 consecutive years of dividend increases. Click here to see all 18 Dividend Kings.

The third doesn't have a 40 or 50-plus year dividend streak. But it is trading at a bargain price and has a price-to-earnings ratio of 7.3.

Keep reading to learn more about these great businesses.

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1. Abbott Laboratories (ABT) - Get Report

Abbott Laboratories is a stand-out health care stock because it will very likely reward shareholders with both dividends and growth over the next several years. Abbott has declared 369 consecutive quarterly dividends. The company first started paying dividends in 1924 and has paid increasing dividends for an amazing 44 consecutive years.

Last year, Abbott raised its shareholder payout by 8%. Abbott stock offers a 2.7% dividend yield.

Abbott's stock price has declined 13% year to date, but the long-term trajectory of the business is intact. Abbott's extremely long history of paying consistent dividends is a sign of the staying power of its business model.

For 2015, Abbott reported adjusted earnings per share of $2.15 on $20.4 billion of revenue. The company grew sales by 0.8% on a reported basis, but excluding the effects of foreign exchange, revenue grew a much more impressive 9.1%. This was led by double-digit growth in emerging markets.  Last quarter, net sales declined just 0.2% year over year on a reported basis. 

Abbott's future growth will be fueled by its $25 billion acquisition of St. Jude Medical (STJ) . Buying St. Jude significantly enhances Abbott's medical devices business, which has a lot of long-term growth potential due to the aging U.S. population. St. Jude Medical has a high-quality product portfolio with leadership positions in premier areas of focus such as cardiovascular devices.

Abbott expects the deal to be accretive to earnings in the first year after closing.

For the full year, Abbott expects $2.19 per share in adjusted earnings at the midpoint of its guidance. That represents approximately 2% year-over-year growth.

Abbott's growth figures this year are hardly exciting, but the company is still growing for now, and future growth will be reignited by its recent acquisitions. In the meantime, the company offers investors an above-average dividend yield and dividend growth each year.

The company's mix of growth potential, safety, and an above average dividend yield make Abbott a favorite of The 8 Rules of Divided Investing.

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2. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) - Get Report

No discussion of a stand-out dividend stock in the health care sector would be complete without Johnson & Johnson. Johnson & Johnson is a giant in the health care field. It has several enormous businesses that are each market leaders and that contribute to the company's stellar profitability and balance sheet strength.

According to the company, 70% of its sales come from products that have either the No. 1 or No. 2 positions in their respective global markets. This has led to very strong earnings growth for Johnson & Johnson over a long period of time.

Johnson & Johnson has achieved 31 consecutive years of growth of adjusted earnings. It is one of only two companies (Microsoft is the other.) to hold a triple-A credit rating from Standard & Poor's.

In 2015, Johnson & Johnson's sales fell 5.7%. The company's revenue decline was due to currency fluctuations and divestments. The strengthening dollar alone suppressed Johnson & Johnson's sales by 7.5% last year.

After stripping out currency and divestments, global core sales increased 6.5% last year. Adjusted EPS rose 5.1% in 2015.

All three of Johnson & Johnson's core businesses increased sales last year on an adjusted basis. Operational worldwide medical device sales increased 2.5%, consumer products sales rose 4.1% and pharmaceutical sales increased 11% year over year.

So far in 2016, the company has realized favorable results. Excluding currency and divestments, operational sales increased 6.9% in the first quarter. Adjusted EPS increased 7.7% year over year. These are solid results for a large blue-chip stock.

Investors should expect growth to continue for many years, thanks to Johnson & Johnson's robust pipeline. Johnson & Johnson has more than 100 drugs marketed. It holds 11 properties that each bring in at least $1 billion in annual revenue.

This year, Johnson & Johnson increased its dividend by 6.7%. It has maintained an amazing streak of steady dividend growth year after year. The company has now come through with dividend increases for the past 54 years.

Johnson & Johnson's new dividend rate provides a 2.8% dividend yield, which is above average when compared with the S&P 500.

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3. Gilead Sciences (GILD) - Get Report

Gilead has disappointed investors for an extended period. The stock is down 15% so far in 2016 and is down 24% over the past year. The good news is that it is now a huge bargain. Gilead stock has a P/E ratio of just 7.3, compared with 23 for the S&P 500 index. 

Such a cheap valuation seems unwarranted because Gilead has generated excellent growth in recent years. Last year, revenue soared 31% to $32.6 billion. Adjusted EPS rose 56% for the full year, and Gilead generated $20.3 billion of operating cash flow last year.

The reason why the stock is so cheap is because investors are concerned about slowing growth for Gilead's two flagship Hepatitis C drugs, Sovaldi and Harvoni. Taken together, these two products make up more than half of Gilead's total sales.

Investors have sold the stock because growth in these two products is beginning to slow down. Worldwide sales of Harvoni declined 15% last quarter, year over year. As a result, Gilead's total revenue grew 2% last quarter which did not meet expectations.

Sentiment is becoming more negative because Gilead's sales could decline this year. Gilead management forecasts $30 billion to $31 billion in total sales this year. That level would indicate a year-over-year drop from the $32.2 billion in sales generated last year. Earnings per share are projected to increase just 1% in 2017.

Going forward, growth concerns should be somewhat alleviated by Gilead's cash hoard. The company has $21 billion in cash, equivalents and marketable securities on its balance sheet.

With such a huge mountain of cash just sitting on the balance sheet, Gilead could easily make a major acquisition to replenish its future pipeline and reignite growth.

In the meantime the stock rewards investors with significant cash returns. This year, Gilead raised its dividend and announced a $12 billion stock buyback authorization.

Earlier this year, Gilead increased its quarterly dividend by 9.3%. On an annualized basis, Gilead's dividend will be $1.88 per share, which is a 2.2% dividend yield based on the current share price.

Gilead's annual dividend represents just 13% of the company's projected 2016 EPS. Based on such a low payout ratio, Gilead should continue to grow its dividend at a high rate for many years.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held a position in ABT.