Take charge of health to reduce disease risk: Experts

The experts said it is never too late - or too early - to start health promotion.
The experts said it is never too late - or too early - to start health promotion.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - More than a third of common chronic medical conditions in Singapore are preventable if people take charge of their health, the country's chief health scientist told a Straits Times webinar.

These conditions include high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan said at the event to discuss how Singaporeans can live longer and healthier lives.

About 35 per cent of the years lost due to ill-health, disability or premature death - a measure called the disability-adjusted life year - are due to things that are potentially modifiable, such as smoking and a poor diet, said Prof Tan, who is also the executive director of the Ministry of Health's Office for Healthcare Transformation.

These facts came from the recently released results of the 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study.

"Even if you have an illness like hypertension or diabetes, if you control that well, you greatly reduce the risk of getting kidney failure or heart disease," Prof Tan said.

"And if you're unlucky enough to have... had a stroke and you had high blood pressure, if you control your blood pressure well, you can reduce the risk of a second stroke by 20 per cent to 30 per cent. So prevention can work at many levels and still be effective."

Prof Tan was speaking on Wednesday (Nov 25) at the Keeping Singapore Healthy webinar, an ST event sponsored by Prudential Singapore and moderated by ST senior health correspondent Salma Khalik.

Prudential Singapore chief executive Dennis Tan shared sobering data that showed most health insurance claims submitted to the firm are from policyholders aged 46 to 55.

"In terms of critical illness, we have observed that the top three reasons for claims would be treatments related to heart, to stroke, as well as to kidney treatments," he said.

From time to time, Prudential Singapore, an Integrated Shield plan provider, also receives claims for cancer from under- 35s.

The Government recently said MediShield Life premiums for people aged 61 and above need to be raised by more than one-third so that it can cope with the 50 per cent rise in both the number of claims and total payouts for older people in the past four years.

But it is not all doom and gloom.

Health Promotion Board chief executive Zee Yoong Kang, who also spoke at the webinar, said that Singaporeans are by some measures the world's healthiest people when it comes to health-adjusted life expectancy or the number of years one can live in good health.

"Singaporeans have 73.9 years of health-adjusted life years, and that's the highest in the world," he said. "If you look at our diet, the amount of physical activity that we have, how much people smoke, you can see improvements over the years. Habits can, over time, shift."

To motivate change, a combination of incentives such as behavioural ones or the use of health apps (Prudential has its Pulse app) can help.

The experts said it is never too late - or too early - to start health promotion, with Prof Tan recommending that it should begin from the womb and early childhood.

The webinar also touched on mental health. Prof Tan said the ministry's Web-based mobile application mindline.sg can help people do self-assessments, while Mr Zee said paying attention to mental wellness means challenging times can be easier to handle.

Prudential's Mr Tan said insurers are paying a lot more attention to mental health, and will continue to put their resources into it.

The firm is keen to form a partnership with the public to keep Singapore healthy.

Mr Tan said Prudential wants to help the public and policyholders stay healthy.

"The nation will be healthier and more productive," he said.

"And for us as a business, in that sense, we will be healthier as well because the claims will gradually come down."