Over-60s suffering more with chronic diseases than a decade ago: Study

More Singaporeans aged 60 and over are also having difficulty carrying out daily living activities, based on an ongoing survey of more than 4,500 Singaporeans and permanent residents. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The proportion of older adults with three or more chronic diseases nearly doubled from 2009 to 2017, a local study has found.

More Singaporeans aged 60 and over are also having difficulty carrying out daily living activities, based on an ongoing survey of more than 4,500 Singaporeans and permanent residents, details of which were revealed on Tuesday (May 7).

The Transitions in Health, Employment, Social Engagement, and Inter-generational Transfers in Singapore (Signs) Study is being carried out by Duke-NUS Medical School's Centre for Ageing Research and Education and the Ministry of Health.

It focuses on physical health and healthcare utilisation, psychological well-being, social networks, social participation, inter-generational transfers within the family, volunteerism, life-long learning, work and retirement.

It is estimated that by 2030, a quarter of Singapore's population will be over 65.

Some 37 per cent of survey respondents reported three or more chronic health conditions in 2017, up from 19.8 per cent in a 2009 study.

The top five chronic health conditions were high blood pressure; high blood cholesterol; cataract; joint pain, arthritis, rheumatism or nerve pain; and diabetes.

"The fact that nearly a third of the respondents have three or more chronic health conditions is worrying," said Dr Rahul Malhotra, the Centre's head of research.

"There could be two possibilities: the 2016/2017 cohort is more educated and have greater access to health facilities, and the Government has launched a lot of screening programmes, so a lot of them have benefited from that."

"The other possibility is that it reflects a worsening health situation."

More elderly people also struggled with basic activities like eating and showering.

In 2017, about 4 per cent of them reported difficulty with one or two daily activities, up from 2.8 per cent in 2009.

And 5 per cent reported difficulty with three or more such activities, up from 3.5 per cent in 2009.

Overall, more women (13 per cent) than men (5 per cent) reported difficulty with them.

"Having difficulty with an ADL (activity of daily living) is more reflective of the severity of the health condition, rather than the presence of the health condition, so it could be that more older Singaporeans today have more advanced stages of the disease," said Dr Malhotra.

He added that problems with daily activities increase much more after the age of 75.

Dr Alvina Nam, a family physician at Clinic @ Costa, agreed that the rise in the proportion of people with these physical health problems could be a reflection of greater awareness of their health, leading to better diagnosis and a rise in people willing to be tested, diagnosed and treated.

"Other reasons are likely an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, and with a better income, many are also willing to spend more on food which makes dieting difficult," she added.

"A continuous campaign to instill the importance of a balanced diet and regular exercise is important with an emphasis of getting families involved in eating and exercising right together."

Dr Angelique Chan, the centre's executive director, said: "This study enables us to provide policymakers with evidence on how older Singaporeans are doing on various dimensions of their lives, which impact on their active and productive engagement in the wider community and society."

The Centre for Ageing Research and Education is currently conducting the second wave of the study, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

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