More living to 100 years old in Singapore

Access to medical care extending twilight years but quality of life is a worry for some

The centenarian club used to be really exclusive, but its membership has ballooned in the past two decades.

From just 71 Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 100 and older in 1990, the country counted an estimated 900 centenarians as of June last year, according to latest data from the Department of Statistics.

In the past decade alone, their ranks almost quadrupled from 232 in 2000, the department's spokesman told The Sunday Times.

The surge comes as the World Health Organisation ranked Singapore as having the world's fourth longest life expectancy last month.

Japan, Switzerland and San Marino all tied for the top spot, with an average life span of 83 years in 2011, compared to 82 years for Singapore.

Experts on ageing interviewed described the jump in the number of centenarians as dramatic.

They attributed this to medical advances in treating diseases and prolonging life. Singaporeans generally can afford good medical and other types of care, adding to their years of life.

Sociologist Angelique Chan said: "We may be keeping more people alive past 100, but what is their quality of life?"

Associate Professor Ng Tze Pin said that most centenarians will face some health problems and have difficulties with daily activities, such as walking, feeding and going to the toilet themselves.

The coordinator of the Gerontology Research Programme at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine added that more than half will also suffer from dementia.

The latest data showed that two in three centenarians are women.

Prof Ng said that women live longer than men because they tend to have better diets, lead healthier lives and stay away from cigarettes and excessive drinking.

They also tend to make better patients when they fall ill, by taking their medicine regularly and adopting a healthier lifestyle.

In addition, women are more willing to share their feelings and problems with family and friends, instead of bottling them up as many men do.

That stress contributes to heart problems, said Associate Professor Kalyani Mehta, head of the gerontology programme at SIM University.

Preliminary data from the Statistics Department showed that a girl born last year could live to an average of 84.5 years old, about four and a half years longer than a boy.

Singaporeans are living longer and the Lion City is one of the fastest ageing populations in the world.

In 1990, the average life expectancy was 73.1 years for men and 77.6 years for women - almost seven years shorter than it is now.

Experts interviewed told The Sunday Times that the longer life span and the growing number of centenarians have a host of implications for families.

Chief among these is their support and care as their children would probably be old, ill or even dead by then.

Prof Mehta said Singaporeans should be mindful of this and make financial and other preparations for their twilight years.

The situation is not unique to Singapore.

A United Nations report released last year estimated there will be 3.2 million centenarians worldwide in 2050, 10 times more than the 316,600 in 2011.

Mr Wu Chung Chuan turned 100 this year and still has a healthy appetite and a booming voice, despite decades of smoking two packets of cigarettes daily.

The former technician worked until his 70s and was independent until he was weakened by a stroke two years ago. Now, the widower uses a wheelchair to get around and spends most of his time in bed at a Econ Nursing Home.

Two of his four children have died. His youngest son, 55-year-old Albert, said his father's health was "very good" until the stroke.

The older Mr Wu, who is slightly deaf, said in Cantonese: "My health was excellent all along until recently. I have no worries and I have a good heart. Maybe that's why I can live so long.

theresat@sph.com.sg