Research on ageing picking up pace

More centres set up to find cures for age-related illnesses, ways to improve living conditions

HDB estates are ideal "retirement villages", with lifts on every floor, senior activity centres and affordable clinics nearby, notes Hua Mei Centre's Dr Ng Wai Chong.
HDB estates are ideal "retirement villages", with lifts on every floor, senior activity centres and affordable clinics nearby, notes Hua Mei Centre's Dr Ng Wai Chong.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Research on ageing is ramping up here, with scientists looking at novel ways to treat debilitating diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, designing buildings with older folk in mind, and tweaking technology to help seniors stay healthy.

In the last six years, at least five new centres which focus on ageing studies have been formed to help people live well, age gracefully and stay out of hospital.

This is on top of many groups at universities, hospitals and research institutes, all looking at unravelling the complexities of ageing. The newest such facility - the Centre for Ageing Research and Education at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School - was opened in June.

That centre brings together investigators in the social sciences, engineering and architecture, as well as doctors and biological scientists.

Projects it is looking at include studying how different generations allocate their finances and time to take care of the elderly.


There is no country that can house all their elderly in hospitals and nursing homes, so the main thrust of our centre is ageing in place.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MIAO CHUN YAN, director of the Research Centre of Excellence in Active Living for the Elderly at the Nanyang Technological University

Singapore is one of the fastest ageing societies in the world. By 2030, one in five people here, or 900,000 people, will be aged over 65, more than double the number now. By then, there will also be only 2.1 working-age citizens to support each citizen aged 65 and above, compared with 5.2 as of last year.

Even more worrying: By 2030, the number of dementia sufferers is expected to more than double from the estimated 38,000 now. If nothing is done, the dramatically rising proportion of infirm elderly will put an unbearable strain on healthcare, housing and community aid.

Associate Professor Miao Chun Yan, director of another such group, the Research Centre of Excellence in Active Living for the Elderly at the Nanyang Technological University, believes there is an urgent need to tap technology to prevent this from happening.

So her team's centre, which opened in collaboration with the University of British Columbia in Canada in 2012, has come up with ways to make use of sensors to track the movements and behaviours of elderly living alone.

It has also developed games to test motor skills and memory, which not only detect age-related diseases like dementia early, but also help people keep active in a fun way. "There is no country that can house all their elderly in hospitals and nursing homes, so the main thrust of our centre is ageing in place," she said, referring to the ability to live in one's own home and community independently.

Recognising the significance of a greying Singapore, the Government set up a Ministerial Committee on Ageing in 2007 to spearhead a cohesive effort. The public sector has also been ramping up support for organisations and charities running programmes serving the elderly.

Dr Ng Wai Chong is medical director of Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing, an initiative of the Tsao Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for older people.

The sheer number of older people in Singapore in the coming years will mean that beds in hospitals and nursing homes will always be in short supply, he said.

Instead, he pointed out, HDB estates are ideal "retirement villages" in their own right. Singapore is moving in the right direction by constructing lifts on every floor, adding more senior activity centres and implementing the Community Health Assist Scheme, which makes seeing a nearby general practitioner (GP) more affordable.

Dr Ng noted, however, that more could be done to strengthen the relationship between primary care doctors - those from polyclinics and GP clinics - and residents in the areas. He believes that if everyone has a primary care doctor that they trust, and if that doctor is supported by a team of nurses, social workers and therapists, then residents will go to him for non-emergency health consultations instead of heading straight to the hospital.

"Even the hospitals will not have to worry about discharging their patients to no one, but can discharge to this team," he said.

More collaboration between senior activity centres - some of which have counsellors, therapists and social workers - and GP clinics could be the way forward.

"Currently daycare is one, primary care is another," he said.

The Tsao Foundation spearheads the Community for Successful Ageing scheme, which identifies high-risk elderly residents who need medical care but have financial constraints or lack family support. Under the scheme, launched in Whampoa in April, those with more severe conditions or mobility issues can visit a mobile clinic. Trained volunteers and medical professionals monitor the more serious cases with house visits and phone calls.

Over at the National University of Singapore, Associate Professor Lim Kah Leong from the National Neuroscience Institute and the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine is working on ways to cure or prevent the progression of Parkinson's - a neuro-degenerative disease that afflicts three out of 1,000 people here aged 50 years and above.

People with Parkinson's progressively lose control of their movements due to a depletion in dopamine cells. His team collaborated with the NUS chemistry department to develop a new compound last year that could help detect the disease early, and could one day protect the brain from the devastating side effects of the disease.

And Mr Goh Siak Koon, executive director at innovation research centre Live Well Collaborative Singapore at Singapore Polytechnic, is developing products and designs for those aged 50 and older. He pointed out that there are key characteristics that differentiate the consumption patterns of elderly who are currently in their 70s and 80s, with those of the baby boomers, otherwise known as the "new old".

Baby boomers entering old age now use the same products as the young, such as smartphones and tablets, and would not appreciate senior products that are toned down on purpose, he said. So rather than "senior phones" - with large buttons and a torchlight - now selling here, the "new old" would want smartphones with a brighter screen and larger default font size, he suggested.

Research into ageing has come a long way, added Lily's Prof Miao.

Her team first proposed the idea for her centre in 2010 but support from the authorities was lukewarm then, she revealed. "We were asked to calculate what was the market value of technology for the elderly," she said. "But two years later, when we made the same presentation, we were told: 'You can skip all the motivation; all of us know how important ageing technology is.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2015, with the headline 'Research on ageing picking up pace'. Print Edition | Subscribe