Bracing for age of centenarians

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Bracing for age of centenarians

At the ripe old age of 102, a fully anaesthetised Moon Gyui-choon endured six hours of surgery recently to remove colorectal cancer at St. Mary’s Hospital in Seoul, and her case is hardly unique. Increasing numbers of senior patients are receiving complicated surgical operations as Koreans live longer due to a better diet and healthier lifestyle.

According to the latest statistics provided by the National Health Insurance Corporation, the number of patients over the age of 85 who underwent a gastrectomy - surgery to remove part or all of the stomach, usually to treat cancer, noncancerous polyps or a gastric ulcer - increased from 60 in 2006 to 144 in 2010. Those in the same age group who underwent partial or full mastectomies tripled from six to 18 over the same period.

In fact, more than 19,000 patients in this age bracket were operated on last year for a total of 33 illnesses - such as spinal surgery, cataract operations or prostate treatments- up 90 percent from 2006. The data strongly suggests that senior health care should focus on the very elderly.

As Koreans live longer due in part to remarkable advances in medical science, more elderly people are going under the knife to stay healthy and comfortable for as long as possible. But the nation’s greying population and improved health care is also causing medical costs to spike. Spending in this area by those over the age of 85 has ballooned to 1.1 trillion won ($950 million) last year from 323.7 billion won in 2006.

Their share of total health care spending also shot up to 2.5 percent from 1.1 percent five years ago. While those aged 60 to 65 spent an average of 199,177 won each this year on medical care, and those aged 70 to 74 spent 242,637 won, patients older than 85 coughed up a whopping 321,064 won.

The government must beef up its welfare to ease the financial burdens on the elderly and allow easier access to health care to deal with this increased demand. At the same time, health care campaigns need to be ramped up to curtail the spread of critical illnesses.

Seoul must map out a comprehensive plan to help advance the living standards of the nation’s oldest demographic, who should also be encouraged to take a more active role in community affairs and society as a whole. Their lives should be supported by all of the available administrative services to enhance their independence, as such plans are not a social burden but rather an investment in our own future.
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