The top 10 killer diseases in Hong Kong cause the deaths of 18 per cent more people a year than they did a decade ago because of the ageing population, unhealthy lifestyles and pollution, the South China Morning Post has found.
As the average life expectancy in Hong Kong has increased by more than five years in the last decade, the number of people dying from age-related diseases has risen.
Thanks to medical advances, fewer people now die from long-term illnesses such as diabetes. But deaths caused by diseases usually associated with old age, such as dementia, have multiplied.
Medical specialists warn that as the population ages, more people could suffer from age-related diseases or develop urban lifestyle-related health conditions because of obesity, pollution and lack of exercise.
Alzheimer's disease expert Wilfred Leung Chi-hang said the government should commit more resources to elderly health care.
Health Department figures show that the number of Hongkongers killed by the top 10 diseases rose by 18 per cent from 31,001 in 2003 to 36,552 last year.
The rate of increase outpaced the growth in the city's population growth, which rose 5 per cent from 6.8 million in 2003 to 7.25 million last year, Census and Statistics Department data shows. However, it is in line with the growth of the elderly population. The number of people aged 65 or above increased 19 per cent, from 818,800 in 2003 to 978,000 last year.
Cancer remains the top killer, claiming about 40 per cent of deaths. It is followed by pneumonia and heart disease. The most significant jump is in dementia, up from 10th biggest killer to eighth. It killed 1,000 people last year - four times the number a decade ago.
On the plus side, fewer patients die from cancers than a decade ago. While the number of cancer cases grew by 26 per cent from 2003 to 2010 - the most recent data available - the average death rate rose only 17 per cent.
The associate director of the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital's radiotherapy department, Dr Daniel Chua Tsin-tien, attributed this to the fact that more cancer cases were being diagnosed at an early stage as more people now had regular health checks. "There are also better and more targeted therapies for cancers than 10 years ago," Chau said.
He said bad habits, pollution and lack of exercise might all be contributing factors to the increase in cancer cases.
Leung, manager of the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease, said that while the number of deaths from dementia might appear low, many more old people died from its complications.
"More cases of dementia are expected as the city sees a longer life expectancy and an ageing population," Leung said.
The number of people killed by diabetes dropped 55 per cent.
"Diabetes is actually a much more common disease than it was 10 years ago, and people who suffer from it are getting younger," Yau said.
Almost 10 per cent of the city's population suffer from the metabolic disease but Yau said fewer patients were dying from the abnormalities in blood sugar level it causes.
Care in Hong Kong failing to keep up with rise in dementia, says expert
Care facilities are failing to keep up with growth in the number of dementia sufferers, an expert has warned, as new figures show the number of Hongkongers killed by the condition quadrupled over the past decade.
Due to a shortage of facilities for the age-related syndrome, only about 10 per cent of sufferers are thought to be receiving specialist care, said Wilfred Leung Chi-hang, the manager of the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease.
"Dementia is becoming more common because there is a longer life expectancy for Hongkongers," said Leung. "Also, more people have access to dementia diagnosis as the awareness of the condition increases."
Leung said about 10 per cent of people aged 65 or above suffered from dementia, but this rose to more than 30 per cent for people aged 85 or above.
His comments followed a study by the Post that found the number of Hongkongers killed by dementia-related illnesses almost quadrupled from 256 in 2003 to 1,000 in 2013, according to data from the Department of Health. The increase meant dementia was the eighth biggest cause of death in terms of numbers of Hongkongers killed. In 2003 it was the 10th.
Dementia is a syndrome or group of symptoms - one of the most common is Alzheimer's disease - that damage the brain's cognitive abilities, affecting aptitudes such as thinking and reasoning. In severe stages, the brain damage can lead to organ failure.
Leung said there was as yet no cure, but there were medicines and training exercises that could slow deterioration.
He added that only about 30 day-centres in the city, mostly self-financed, offered such treatment, and that because it cost about HK$6,000 a month, many sufferers could not afford it.
Patients at public hospitals also faced waits of a year or longer for the condition to be diagnosed.
"We hope that the government can increase resources and support towards dementia patients," Leung said. "We hope that at least patients will be able to enjoy a better quality of life with their family in the early stages of the condition before it turns severe and [they become] unable to communicate."
The organisation Leung manages was founded by, and named after, the Nobel Prize-winning "father of fibre optics", Charles Kao, who himself suffers from dementia. It is chaired by Kao's wife Gwen.
According to the World Health Organisation there are 35.6 million people living with dementia worldwide. The number is forecast to double by 2030 and more than treble by 2050.
The organisation said dementia was overwhelming not only for sufferers, but also for their caregivers and families. It said there was a lack of awareness and understanding of dementia in most countries, resulting in stigmatisation and barriers to care.