Growing elderly population poses challenges for Brunei’s healthcare system

|     Azaraimy HH     |

WHILE Brunei Darussalam’s population at present is dominated by young people, the number of elderly in the country is rising steadily, bringing concern on whether the country is able to handle the problem this engenders, said Head of the Health Promotion Centre at the Ministry of Health Dr Hajah Norhayati binti Haji Md Kassim.

Dr Hajah Norhayati spoke to the Bulletin after delivering a talk during the launch of the seniors health programme at the Senior Citizens Activity Centre in Tutong (Tutong PKWE Centre) earlier this week.

The proportion of seniors in Brunei in relation to its overall population is expected to grow to more than 15 per cent by 2030, and to more than 30 per cent by 2050, according to figures from the UN Development Programme.

Dr Hajah Norhayati added that growing concern over a country’s ability to address an ageing population has been brought up every now and then at the regional level. In Brunei, the definition for the elderly is “those currently aged 60 and above”. Internationally, this applies to individuals aged 65 and above.

“We know the number of our seniors is increasing, we have evidence of this over the last few years. For us at the Ministry of Health, the concern is whether we are ready to face it, as elderly people tend to have a higher prevalence of suffering from chronic diseases in comparison to the general population,” she said.

Within a time period from 2012 to 2017, the population of Brunei Darussalam has steadily increased from 298,700 (2012) to 403,300 (2013); 407,600 (2014) to 412,400 (2015); and 417,257 (2016) to 421,300 (2017).

Head of the Health Promotion Centre at the Ministry of Health Dr Hajah Norhayati binti Haji Md Kassim during an interview with the Bulletin. – AZARAIMY HH

In 2016, the life expectancy for males was 80.5 years and 80.8 years for females. (For comparison, this figure was 75.6 years for males and 78.5 years for females in 2011.)

“So we want the elderly who live longer to be as healthy as possible. Even though they might be living with a chronic disease, we want their condition to be under control, we want them to at the least maintain that state and not develop new diseases,” she added.

“But with chronological ageing also comes biological ageing, this cannot be avoided. The body slows down in a lot of ways, and thus the elderly need to do specific things to maintain a good health condition, including not overstressing their bodies as well as not underutilising it. Meaning, it is important to maintain a good physical balance at their age.

“Also, if an elderly person contracts a disease that requires prolonged hospitalisation, this is not good for them as they might get exposed to other diseases in hospital as their immune system is no longer as strong as before.

“At the end of the day, our message is – ‘Prevention is better than cure’. It is important for the elderly to practise a healthy lifestyle. While they tend to not eat as much as they used to when they were younger, they still need food, especially healthy food such as a good amount of fruits and vegetables for their daily diet.”

Dr Hajah Norhayati added that studies show that 86.9 per cent of the elderly in the country do not consume enough fruits and vegetables.

“This is a matter of concern issue, not just for the seniors but for the general Brunei population as well. We did a survey on the general population back in 2015-2016, and what we found was Bruneians – be they children, young adults or the elderly – on average were not consuming enough fruits and vegetables in their daily diets,” she said.

“The recommendation is to take two to three servings of fruits, and two to three servings of vegetables daily.” According to a 2015-2016 survey on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the country, it was found that 7.2 per cent of the elderly are smokers, and 19.1 per cent do not exercise regularly or are not physically active.

“Physically, the body deteriorates a bit faster, and for the elderly who are not physically active and staying at home and not getting much social interaction, they lose this important human need for social networking. This can give rise to loneliness and other mental issues as well,” Dr Hajah Norhayati cautioned.

“Thus it is important for seniors to be physically and socially active, as well as mentally engaged. It is proven that elderly individuals who are more mentally engaged, be it through taking part in debates and discussions, tend to be a bit healthier and possess more positive attitudes – this is important.”