'Healthy lifespan' gets longer in Singapore

Office workers at Raffles Place.
Office workers at Raffles Place. PHOTO: ST FILE

Trend expected to continue with greater emphasis on care for chronic diseases

SINGAPORE - People in Singapore are not just living longer, but also staying healthy for more years. As a result of this, the time that they spend saddled with disabilities has come down.

Between 2004 and 2010, the life expectancy for men went up by 2.1 years, while their healthy years rose by 2.7 years. The change was even greater for women, whose life expectancy rose by two years and healthy years by four.

Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health, told The Straits Times that while life expectancy rose over the past decade, healthy years rose faster.

With greater emphasis on care for chronic diseases, Dr Khor, who also sits on the Ministerial Committee on Ageing, expects the trend of more healthy years to continue.

Professor Chia Kee Seng, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said healthy years "increased in recent years, probably due to a delay in the onset of chronic diseases among the current older generations. This could be due to greater adoption of healthy living when they were young adults".

But he is less optimistic than Dr Khor.

He said: "I hope that this will continue in the future, but there is a worrying trend of increasing obesity among the young adults over the last 15 years."

For now, Dr Khor said: "The question is whether we can turn longevity to our advantage. If we can, the opportunities that come with longevity are tremendous."

Today, Singapore has 4.8 working adults supporting one senior aged 65 or older. By 2030, it will be 2.1 adults to one senior.

But this is just a planning tool and should not be taken literally, said Dr Khor, as people do not, at the age of 65, "flip from being a very productive person to being somebody who is dependent".

She said the Government wants to "change the conversation, the perception, about ageing" to turn the longer lives of people here into an advantage.

An ageing population, she said, is not necessarily less dynamic or cohesive. She noted: "Older persons can be an engine for national development, contributing to our community, our society and to our economic growth."

Younger people need not worry that encouraging older people to continue working will take away jobs from them, given Singapore's tight labour market, she said.

She added that most young people would be happy if their parents and grandparents can remain active and independent for longer.

It should also assure them that they, too, can remain economically active when they are old.

But she added that ageing cannot be denied: "We may be able to delay it, but it is inevitable and not reversible." This is why the Government provides grants so that firms can redesign jobs or get equipment which would allow seniors to remain productive. Nearly 1,600 firms have used these to help over 35,000 older workers.

Dr Khor hopes to see more companies become "age blind".

She said: "While employers are free to decide who they want to hire or retain, such decisions should be based on the quality of the individual - his skills and experience - rather than on his age."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline ''Healthy lifespan' gets longer in S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe