WE are getting old. The statistics show Malaysia’s inevitable march towards a difficult milestone – that of an ageing nation.
An ageing society is defined as having a minimum 7% of its population aged 65 and older, while an aged nation has 14% or more in that age group.
The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s 2016 population data sheet shows that as of last year, Malaysians aged 60 and above comprise 9.5% of the population.
This is projected to increase to 14.4% in 13 years’ time and nearly a quarter of the population (23.5%) by 2050. So, it is sooner rather than later that we will become an ageing or aged nation.
In fact, Malaysia’s march towards this milestone has been an accelerated one. Most developed nations take almost a century to reach this mark.
France, for example, took 115 years to move from being an ageing society to an aged one.
For Malaysia, it should take us just 25 years.
In effect, such numbers reflect one of Malaysia’s success stories – healthcare.
It has been 60 years since independence and during that time, we have managed to increase our lifespan by about 20 years.
Improvements in primary public healthcare such as sanitation, food safety and protection against infectious diseases via vaccination have all contributed to this increased life expectancy.
As of last year, the average life span of a Malaysian is estimated at 74.7 years; in 2000, it was 72.2 years.
Unfortunately, living longer has not translated to better quality of life.
The rates of infectious diseases may have gone down, but the number of those afflicted with lifestyle/non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and cancer has risen and more worryingly, continues to rise.
This is evident from the various National Health and Morbidity surveys carried out in the country.
The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2015 revealed that obese Malaysians make up 17.7% of the population, while those categorised as overweight make up 30%.
The obesity rate for 1996 was 4.4%, and 14% in 2006.
The same survey found that about 3.5 million or 17.5% of Malaysians aged 18 and above have diabetes. In 2006, this figure was 11.6%; it was 15.2% in 2011.
One thing is clear from these numbers – more Malaysians are having to live longer in ill health.
There may be some spending the last 25 years of their lives having to cope with diabetes and hypertension, and their complications.
All this takes a toll on the healthcare system, with the Government having to allocate increased monies to help provide treatment to people living with such conditions.
Will the country be able to cope with the increasing number of the elderly and ill?
The proposed Aged Healthcare Act is a start, though its aim is better regulation and monitoring of aged healthcare centres in the country.
But more needs to be done.
It is true that we need to look at the delivery of healthcare to the aged. Support services, infrastructure, laws that safeguard elders and community engagement programmes – these are some of the areas that will need to be reviewed.
And while the Government should be fully prepared for the needs of an aged nation, communities need to play their part.
We need to develop an age-friendly culture that embraces the elderly instead of isolating them.
After all, this is a pool of people with a wealth of life and work experience, and we should tap into that.
Universiti Malaya public health specialist Assoc Prof Dr Noran Mohd Hairi said in an interview with The Star that “population ageing isn’t something to be mourned. Rather, it should be celebrated because it speaks of our public health success and advances in medicine which have led to longer life expectancies, declining fertility and maternal mortality rates”.
Perhaps it is also time we woke up to the fact that many of us are ageing unhealthily.
Shouldn’t we be taking urgent action to improve our health so that we don’t end up living the last 20 to 30 years of our lives saddled with multiple diseases that burden not only our families, but also the community and country?