Vietnamese elderly face "double health burden'

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Vietnam will transit from "˜ageing' to "˜aged' population structure in much shorter time than other nations, posing a challenge to the country's socio-economic development

A man with his granddaughter in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam needs to speed up preparations to provide adequately for an ageing population, a UNFPA report says.

Tran Van Phuoc had lived with tuberculosis for several years before he fully recovered in 1994. While he was being treated for tuberculosis, he was also diagnosed with diabetes in 1993.

"It was such a dilemma. As a tuberculosis patient, I was supposed to eat nutritious food. As a diabetes patient, I was supposed to avoid many foods to maintain blood glucose levels within acceptable bounds," said the 59-year-old retired information technology engineer in Ho Chi Minh City.

Many citizens like Phuoc have been living with communicable and non-communicable diseases for several years now, and their numbers will rise significantly as life expectancy increases in Vietnam.

In fact, the country is rapidly moving from an "˜ageing' to an "˜aged' population structure, and a report released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on Thursday (May 12) warns many elderly persons in the country could be bearing "double health burdens."

"Disease patterns are shifting from communicable to non-communicable diseases; chronic illnesses, and lifestyle diseases are becoming more frequent," said the report.

According to UNFPA, data from Vietnam's 2009 Census on Population and Housing shows that the country's population is ageing very rapidly and will soon enter the so-called "˜aged' phase as a result of both longer life expectancy and declining fertility and mortality rates.

The report also found that the time for Vietnam to transit from an "˜ageing' to an "˜aged' population structure will be much shorter than many countries with higher development levels: 85 years for Sweden; 26 years for Japan; 22 years for Thailand; and only 20 years for Vietnam.

Population projections by the General Statistics Office (GSO) show that the elderly population (aged 60 and over) will reach ten percent of the total population of 86 million in 2017.

According to the projections, Vietnam will enter the "˜aged phase' in the following two decades when the ageing index - the number of persons 60 years old or over per hundred persons under age 15 - will increase from 35.5 in 2009 to more than 100 in 2032.

"Increasing life expectancy and the resulting increasing number of healthy grandparents and even great-grandparents brings happiness to each family and society as a whole. However, if ageing is not considered as an important socio-economic development issue today, appropriate research, policies and programs to deal with ageing will not be initiated," said Bruce Campbell, UNFPA representative in Vietnam.

He said timely preparation was necessary to adapt to the new change in population structure that could challenge the country's socio-economic development.

"Vietnam needs realistic and appropriate policies and strategies. Such policies and strategies should be designed and implemented using evidence from various quantitative and qualitative research regarding the relationship between an ageing population and economic growth and the social service and social protection requirements for the elderly," Campbell said.

Duong Quoc Trong, general director of General Office for Population and Family Planning, said that ageing population has been one of the prioritized issues in the new national strategy on population and reproductive health for 2011-2020.

"In the coming years, the number of elderly people will continue to increase, thus Vietnam needs to have better policies for taking care of the elderly," Trong said in a statement to launch the UNFPA report.

According to the report, the life expectancy for both men and women in Vietnam at 60 years is comparable to that of other countries in the region with higher development levels.

However, healthy life expectancy is not as high, given the assessment that each Vietnamese elderly person on average has had 14 years of suffering from illnesses out of 72.2 years of life.

"The average treatment cost for an elderly person is 7-8 times that for a child," the report said. The older a person is, the higher the risks of disability, like blindness, deafness, paralysis or memory loss. The aged population spends a lot of time incapacitated in bed, it added.

The most critical challenge is that the healthcare system is changing at a slow pace to adapt to an expected ageing population. Few provinces and cities have hospitals with gerontology departments and geriatric education and training in medical schools is limited. Community-based care is underdeveloped while home-based care is premature, the report said.

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