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Unlocking cognitive vitality

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We need to prepare for the cognitive challenges facing our aging population (Centre For Ageing Better - Unsplash)

How Malaysia can support healthy aging

By Dr. Diana Abdul Wahab

The proportion of older people in Malaysia has increased significantly over the years. Between 1991 and 2010, the Malaysian population aged 60 and over more than doubled, from about 1 million to 2.2 million. It is projected to rise to about 7 million, or 17.6% of the projected population of 40 million, by 2040. Additionally, Malaysia is forecasted to become an aging country by 2030, with the percentage of elderly people rising to about 20%.

Dr. Diana Abdul Wahab

Aging has become a significant social and economic challenge of the 21st century in many nations, with implications such as an increased old-age dependency ratio, a shrinking workforce, rising healthcare expenditure, and an insufficient number of caretakers, leaving families to cope with care needs. With the elderly population in Malaysia projected to significantly increase, reaching 15% by 2030, strategies to bolster cognitive health in older adults are increasingly vital.

Aging in Malaysia poses unique challenges, particularly regarding the risk of cognitive decline among the elderly population. Studies have indicated that cognitive frailty is a prevalent issue among older adults in Malaysia, with an incidence rate of 7.1 per 100 person-years. Vision impairment has been identified as an independent risk factor for subsequent cognitive decline in elderly women, underscoring the importance of addressing sensory impairments in cognitive health. Economic hardship among the elderly in Malaysia has been associated with adverse consequences on cognitive status, highlighting the intricate interplay between socioeconomic factors and cognitive health in aging individuals. Additionally, 58.1% of older Malaysians reported limitations in activities of daily living (ADL).

Research at Universiti Malaya investigates the impact of various physical activities on cognitive aging, particularly focusing on memory, numeracy, and semantic fluency. The study shows that volunteering among seniors aged 60 and above is associated with various benefits, including improvements in social, physical, and cognitive activities. These improvements are believed to lead to enhanced functioning and a reduced risk of dementia.

Cognitive performance in older adults is crucial, and effective methods to maintain or improve cognitive function are increasingly important as the population ages. Involvement in family activities increases semantic scores. Research suggests that social activities, including family interactions, play a crucial role in maintaining cognitive function in older adults. Regular engagement in physical activities and attendance at social activities have been associated with improved cognitive function in the elderly.

Furthermore, frequent contact with friends has been found to be associated with better episodic memory and executive functioning, which in turn can positively impact cognitive function. Participation in educational and training activities has been shown to have a positive relationship with cognitive function among individuals aged 60 and above. Various studies have highlighted the benefits of engaging in cognitive training programs, participating in a variety of cognitive, social, and physical activities, and being actively involved in activities such as outdoor activities, housework, playing games, reading, and watching TV. Studies have also explored the impact of various activities on cognitive function, such as reading the Holy Quran, participating in functional movement training, and using information and communication technology.

To support cognitive health in aging populations, several recommendations emerge. First, promote balanced physical activities, encouraging moderate exercises like walking and tai chi, which provide benefits without adverse effects. This aligns with Malaysia’s National Policy for Older Persons and the National Health Policy for Older Persons, which emphasize physical activity for healthy aging.

Second, facilitate volunteering opportunities through community programs, enhancing cognitive functions related to social and verbal skills. Malaysia’s Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat could expand initiatives like the Pusat Aktiviti Warga Emas (PAWE) to include more cognitive-focused activities.

Third, provide resources and support systems for caregivers, reducing stress and cognitive burden through programs like the Malaysian government’s Bantuan Warga Emas, which offers financial assistance and resources.

Fourth, promote family activities that stimulate cognitive skills, such as games and educational interactions, supported by family-centered policies in Malaysia’s National Family Policy.

Fifth, invest in lifelong learning opportunities tailored for older adults through universities and community colleges, which can offer courses, workshops, and online learning options. This can be bolstered by initiatives under Malaysia’s Lifelong Learning for Older Malaysians (3L) program.

Finally, create employment policies that support cognitive health, offering flexible working hours, stress management programs, and cognitive training opportunities within the workplace, consistent with Malaysia’s efforts under the National Policy for Older Persons to promote productive aging.

The author is a senior lecturer at the Department of Decision Science, Faculty of Business and Economics, Universiti Malaya. She may be reached at diana.abdwahab@um.edu.my

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