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Depression in elderly: prevention is key

11 June 2012

Social support of elderly people can help in preventing depression
Photo: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd

One in five elderly persons in Singapore aged 75 and above exhibits signs of depression. This is the finding of the "Singapore Longitudinal Ageing Study", a project of the gerontological research programme at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (YLLSoM). The study was led by Prof Kua Ee Heok, Assoc Prof Rathi Mahendran and Assoc Prof Ng Tze Pin from the Department of Psychological Medicine, YLLSoM.

A total of 412 elderly people were surveyed in door-to-door interviews at delineated Jurong and Bukit Merah catchment areas. About 21 per cent of those aged over 80 and 16 per cent of those in their mid to late 70s responded that they were sad, lonely or in low spirits. This was even though nine out of ten respondents lived with their family.

Explaining the causes of depression, Prof Kua said that an elderly person feels lonely if ignored or isolated even when he or she is living with family members. Depression may also occur when a physically disabled elderly person is dependent on others. The feeling can be a result of a physical illness such as cancer, stroke, chronic lung disease or diabetes.

Alarmingly, depression in the elderly can lead to increasing suicide rates. Thus, addressing depression is critical to improving the quality of life of the elderly in Singapore and preventing suicide, stressed Prof Kua, whose teaching areas include geriatric psychiatry.

He highlighted that prevention of depression in the community can be done by enhancing the social support of elderly people who live alone. Primary care locations for the elderly such as general practitioner clinics or Polyclinics can look out for early signs of depression, while pre-retirement planning can also help in minimising the risk.

Assoc Prof Mahendran pointed out that with this finding, more attention should be paid to those aged above 80 who live with their family. She cautioned families who might take sadness and loneliness in the elderly for granted, associating such traits with being old. More studies should focus on the needs of this age group, she said.

The research, which was started a year ago, was partly financed by a grant from the late Mr Henry Lim, a past president of the Singapore Gerontological Society.

Going forward, the research team hopes to expand the study size to 3,000 respondents.