Extend 'healthspan', not just lifespan

Singapore has a healthcare system globally viewed as a model of efficiency, providing excellent care at relatively low cost.

Supporting evidence comes from Singapore's rapidly increasing life expectancy, which now ranks among the highest in the world.

With longer life expectancy and declining birth rate come challenges. Recent data suggests that by 2030, almost 25 per cent of Singapore's population will be above the age of 65.

The financial component of demographic change was brought home in Singapore recently when the Marsh and McLennan Asia-Pacific Risk Centre projected that elderly annual healthcare costs will rise tenfold per capita by 2030, reaching nearly US$38,000 (S$52,000) (" Elderly health costs to rise tenfold by 2030: Report"; last Thursday).

Most countries face similar problems, and progressive strategies are needed to mitigate the devastating economic impact of global demographic change.

Singapore is ahead of the curve, developing and implementing changes in social policy to improve quality of life for elders. Increased healthcare access, promotion of inter-generational bonding, and post-secondary education are among the innovations.

These societal initiatives will improve the elder experience, but there is another complementary approach to be adopted.

Medical research in the past two decades has raised the possibility that ageing can be delayed directly.

Since it is the biggest risk factor for all of the major chronic diseases that drive healthcare costs, slowing ageing would prevent multiple diseases simultaneously and maintain function later in life.

Therefore, not only lifespan but "healthspan" would be increased.

This is already achievable in animals, and human clinical studies such as Targeting Ageing with Metformin (Tame) are under way. Approaches include lifestyle modification, medical diets, nutraceuticals and novel drugs that may delay ageing.

Through substantial investment, Singapore has become a leader in medical research. By emphasising preclinical and clinical studies to slow ageing, Singapore can take the lead in combating the medical crisis of this century.

Extending healthspan, especially combined with progressive societal changes, will be a major economic boon.

But the most important reason to extend healthspan is that we deserve to be healthy and disease-free as we get older, so that we can continue to engage - working, volunteering, helping to raise our grandchildren, remaining physically active, and contributing our accumulated wisdom to help positively shape a complex and challenging world.

Brian Kennedy

President and Chief Executive

Buck Institute for Research on Ageing

United States

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Extend 'healthspan', not just lifespan'. Print Edition | Subscribe