LONGEVITY: Malaysians are living longer and healthier, thanks to better medical services and a growing awareness of active living. But longer lifespans also bring great challenges ahead, report Rozanna Latiff and Nuradilla Noorazam
THE past four decades have brought great changes to Malaysia.
Steady economic growth, advances in medicine and nutrition, more expendable income and a higher quality of life have led to longer lifespans, with the average Malaysian now living up to 74 years old compared with just 59 in 1967.
According to consultant geriatrician and Malaysian Wellness Society president Dr Rajbans Singh, Malaysia was set to face an ageing population by 2030, when 15 per cent of Malaysians will be aged 60 or older.
"It's a worldwide trend with lifespans increasing greatly with better food and better healthcare. Malaysian men are now living up to their 70s while the average woman's life expectancy is nearing 80," he told the New Straits Times recently.
According to a 2011 Statistics Department report, women in the country had a higher life expectancy of 77 years compared with men at 71.9, an improvement from 74.7 years for women and 70 for men in 2000.
Chinese women lived the longest, with an average life expectancy of 79.8 years, followed by Indian women (76.2), Malay women (75.3) and Chinese men (74.4).
The fertility rate among women, however, showed a drop from three in 2000 to 2.2.
A presentation by Universiti Malaya last year during the International Conference on Population Ageing showed that Malaysia was now nearing the top third of all nations in lifespan, suggesting it was on its way to becoming an ageing nation.
With more living longer beyond retirement, Dr Rajbans said the time had come to ensure the elderly received their chance to live healthy and more fulfilled lives in their advancing years.
"The key to longevity is ensuring a higher quality of life throughout the later years, when one becomes more susceptible to degenerative diseases and problems, such as cancer, depression and mobility issues. What's worrying right now is that many Malaysians are not prepared for the challenges of old age.
"We're seeing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, strike more and more young people, which will cause much more pressing problems as they get older."
The first step, he said, was to move from a sickness-based approach to ageing to one that was focused on ageing well.
"Ageing starts at 18. Rather than waiting to fall sick, we should start instilling good dietary and exercise habits from young.
"Even with later retirement ages, studies have shown that it is better to start pre-retirement health programmes while workers are still in their 40s to maximise their benefits."
Daily walks and simple exercises were enough to keep muscles limber and brains active, he said.
On a broader scale, said Dr Rajbans, Malaysia needed to look into preparing more facilities and services catered to the elderly.
"We have to develop enough geriatric services, nursing homes and trained caregivers to cater to the growing number of the aged.
"While private nursing homes exist, many remain unregistered with the government," said Dr Rajbans.
"At the same time, it is difficult to close them as their residents have nowhere to go.
"A lot needs to be done to ensure these nursing homes can provide the best care for the elderly."