A TIME bomb is ticking here - and its name is Diabetes.
One in three Singaporeans will develop this condition by the time they are 69, making it one of the most pressing health issues here, said Professor Chia Kee Seng, the dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
'It is no longer a question of 'if I will get diabetes', but 'when I will get diabetes',' he said.
In fact, in 2010, 11.3 per cent of people aged 18 to 69 were already living with this condition, in which a high level of sugar in the blood can damage the organs. In 2004, it was 8.2 per cent.
The disease is fairly widespread among those aged 70 and above.
The 11.3 per cent figure earns Singapore the dubious honour of having one of the highest incidences of this illness among developed countries.
In Europe, it is generally around 6 to 9 per cent; worldwide, it is 8.5 per cent.
Dr Stanley Liew, an endocrinologist at Raffles Hospital, said the rise of diabetes here mirrors the rise in obesity from 6.9 per cent in 2004 to 10.8 per cent in 2010.
The reasons for concern are two-fold:
- Diabetes worsens the older a population gets: On top of this, doctors here are seeing an earlier onset of the disease. In 2004, 8 per cent of those aged 40 to 49 had it; six years later, it had gone up to 12 per cent in that age group.
- Diabetes causes a host of health complications ranging from blindness to kidney failure, poor circulation leading to limb amputations, heart attacks and strokes.
Associate Professor Tai E Shyong, who heads endocrinology at the National University of Singapore, said: 'It's a concern for most doctors, and indeed, for health- care organisations.'
Diabetes is the top cause of blindness here. It is also linked to two limb amputations a day and 60 per cent of kidney failures, up from 50 per cent a decade ago.
In 2009, 46.4 per cent of people who had their first heart attacks here were diabetic, said the Health Promotion Board (HPB). Internationally, the figure is 30 to 40 per cent, noted cardiologist Aaron Wong of the National Heart Centre.
Singapore's high figure stems from the higher incidence of diabetes here, he added. A person with runaway blood-sugar readings stands the same risk of getting a heart attack as one who has already survived one attack.
Diabetics also have poorer recovery from heart attacks, as uncontrolled diabetes narrows the arteries, making it difficult to get enough blood to the heart following an attack.
Dr Goh Su-Yen, the head of endocrinology at Singapore General Hospital, added that diabetics are 50 per cent more likely to have a heart attack than someone without the disease.
Diabetics must control their blood sugar levels. Studies show that every percentage-point increase raises the risk of cardiovascular disease by 11 per cent.
Said Dr Goh: 'If you already have diabetes, there is still plenty that can still be done to reduce the risk of developing complications.'
Proper and early treatment and screening for possible complications will cut overall risks of these complications.
Those about to develop the condition can avert it with 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise. This, with a 5- to 10-per-cent weight loss, can cut the risk by 58 per cent, she said.
More men than women here have the condition, with Indians almost twice as likely to get it as the Chinese; it is also high among Malays.
Half the people with diabetes remain unaware of it. They are the ones in whom complications such as stroke and kidney failure will emerge in about a decade.
Dr Liew said: 'Interventions to prevent and control diabetes are more cost-effective than treating patients after diabetic complications have occurred.'
Prof Tai said 'significant efforts' are being made here to prevent diabetes, such as by encouraging people to eat right and exercise more.
'We know from clinical trials that if we get this right, we can reduce new cases by as much as half,' he said.