Only One In 10 Malaysian Elderly is Healthy, Expert Says

By Boo Su-Lyn | 24 September 2019

Malaysia’s healthy ageing prevalence is only 11%, below Singapore (17.8%) and Thailand (27.5%).

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PETALING JAYA, Sept 24 — Only 11 per cent of Malaysian elderly people aged healthily in 2015, down from 13 per cent from 2002 to 2006, a study has shown.

Dr Suzana Shahar, head of the Centre of Healthy Aging and Wellness at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said her 2015 research showed that only about one out of 10 Malaysian senior citizens experienced “successful” or healthy ageing, which means an absence of illnesses like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or stroke; no functional limitation; good cognition or mental health; no depression; good quality of life; and good self-perception on health.

A total of 16 per cent experienced mild cognitive impairment, while 73 per cent had “usual ageing”, which means extrinsic factors alone increase the effects of ageing, unlike “successful ageing” in which external factors play a neutral or positive role.

According to a 1987 study by Rowe JW and Kahn RL, the effects of the ageing process are exaggerated, while the modifying effects of diet, personal habits, exercise, and psychosocial factors are underestimated.

Dr Suzana told a recent roundtable discussion organised by the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy here on malnutrition that Malaysia’s prevalence of healthy aging at 11 per cent was below Singapore (17.8 per cent) and Thailand (27.5 per cent), but was about the same as the United States (10.9 per cent) and slightly higher than Europe (8.5 per cent).

She also cited a 2011 study by Lee LK et al that found about 20 per cent mild cognitive impairment among the bottom 40 per cent of income earners (B40), higher than the national prevalence rate of 16 per cent.

Only 3 per cent of Singaporean elderly suffered frailty, said Dr Suzana, citing a 2014 study, compared to 7.5 per cent in the Klang Valley in Malaysia. The Klang Valley’s pre-frailty rate was 65 per cent, double that of Singapore’s 32 per cent. Almost two-thirds of Singaporean elderly, or 65 per cent, were robust, compared to just 27.5 per cent in the Klang Valley.

Dr Suzana said her research found that almost 40 per cent of Malaysian senior citizens suffered from cognitive pre-frailty and cognitive frailty. She had also discovered that three to four out of 10 older adults in Malaysia experienced sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass linked with ageing.

“We found that older Malaysians have no problem with social networking, but they’re not like the Koreans and Japanese which do cognitive stimulation. You can see older adults there play games to improve cognition. But not an awareness for older Malaysians to engage with cognitive stimulation.”

Malaysia ages at a higher rate of disability than Australia. Graphic by Dr Suzana Shahar.

Malaysia, she said, was ageing at a higher rate of disability compared to Australia, with dementia being a major cause of disability among older Malaysians, followed by musculoskeletal and visual-hearing conditions.

“As [a] conclusion, we are entering an ageing nation with little body reserve to be prepared, with little muscle mass, not so good in respect to metabolic condition, biological and brain reserve.

“Poor socio-economic status, mental health and physical function increase risk of malnutrition and poor health of aging Malaysians,” Dr Suzana told the roundtable discussion.

Malaysia was ageing much faster than other nations, estimated to take only 23 years from those aged 65 and above forming 7 per cent of the population in 2020 to that age group forming 14 per cent of the population in 2043. In comparison, the proportion of the aged rising from 7 per cent to 14 per cent of the population would take the UK 45 years, the US 69 years, and France 115 years, according to a 2015 study by Ismail et al that she cited.

Dr Suzana called for dietary changes and better nutrition, stressing that middle-age intervention was not too late.

“Now we have to focus on the middle age, if we can change something on middle age, we can see some improvement in aged population.”

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