The Ministry recently launched the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) (formerly known as the Primary Care Partnership Scheme) to help more middle and low income Singaporeans benefit from subsidised care at GP and dental clinics near their homes. This scheme makes it easier and more convenient for Singaporeans aged 40 and above who qualify to manage their chronic diseases early, and avoid unnecessary medical complications. While it’s possible to treat medical conditions after they have set in, the best way to avoid all chronic diseases is to live a healthy lifestyle. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure! I’m sure we are all aware of this, the question often is “how?”
Take obesity for example. Experts believe that obesity is not just a lifestyle disease but also a lifestyle choice, since it has to do with what we eat and how we decide to live. Obesity leads to so many other health problems including diabetes and heart disease. In fact, a recent MOH study estimated that in Singapore, if nobody is overweight or obese, we can prevent almost 70% of the diabetes burden (this includes premature death and years spent in ill health), and almost 20% of cardiovascular disease burden in Singapore!
We have been encouraging Singaporeans to exercise regularly and eat more healthily, but making these changes is not so simple. It is hard work to lose weight. Anyone who has tried to do so will agree. Healthy lifestyle habits therefore need to be developed from young; they are so difficult to change later in life. But the obesity epidemic is already affecting Singapore’s young: In 2010, about 6000 (or 10.8%) of our youth (aged 18) entered adulthood already obese based on our National Health Survey findings. Compare this to 1998 when the figure was only about 2500 (or 6.0%). Statistics show that obese people will spend at least 20% more on healthcare over their lifetime. It is therefore important that we inculcate the right healthy lifestyle habits from young.
It took celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver’s reality TV show to really show just how bad things have become: children getting pizzas for breakfast and flavoured milk with more sugar than a can of soft drink. In the aftermath of the “Feed me Better” campaign in the UK, former Prime Minister Tony Blair set up a School Food Trust to get schools to pledge their commitment to providing healthier meals. To that end, I’m glad that our schools place great importance on this, working closely with the Health Promotion Board (HPB) to promote healthy lifestyle habits to their students. During my visit to Wellington Primary School last year, I was impressed to find student set meals that provided a balanced diet, complete with fruits and vegetables. Our next step now, is to move “up-stream” and target pre-schools to build an environment that encourages healthy living among our younger children.
Besides schools, parents and caregivers have a critical role to play in making sure our children develop the right habits. As a mother of three children, I can attest to the important role that we as parents play. I make sure that my children have a healthy diet during their growing up years. In fact, I still cook healthy dishes for the family whenever I have the time! It will not be effective if our schools promote healthy lifestyle habits, only for the child to go home and immediately open a bag of chips and a can of soda, and spend the rest of the day on the sofa in front of the TV. Parents and caregivers not only help to establish a healthy home environment, they also act as role models for their children.
While establishing a firm foundation of healthy lifestyle habits from young is important, it is never too late to change our habits later in life for better health. Changing our lifestyle habits is a process, and processes take time, and a fair amount of discipline and hard work. Unfortunately, there is no short cut. If we spend the first 30 years of our lives living sedentary lifestyles and “living to eat” as the old Chinese saying goes, it will take some effort to start exercising and eating healthily.
Take physical activity as an example. Many of us find it difficult to find time to exercise regularly due to our busy schedules. In fact, about 40% of Singaporeans (18-69 years old) do not exercise enough to meet minimum guidelines for good health. But some physical activity is better than none at all. There are actually small steps we can take towards living a more active lifestyle. Using the staircase instead of the escalator or lift, walking out for lunch instead of driving, going down to the park to play as family time instead of staying in front of the television, are some changes we can easily make to our daily routines. Seemingly small, it’s steps like these that help start us on our journey to a healthier lifestyle, and reap the long term benefits when sustained over time.
With Singaporeans living longer, it is important that Singaporeans take control of our health. The recent National Health Survey showed that half of people suffering from diabetes do not know they have the condition. Similarly, there are findings to suggest that an obese person or one living an unhealthy lifestyle might have other chronic conditions such as diabetes or high cholesterol. While we step up our public engagement to raise awareness on the various health promotion programmes in the community, Singaporeans need to come forward to participate in these programmes.
If health is wealth, let’s all be proactive and work towards a healthy and wealthy Singapore population! It starts with you and I.