Population

China's Rural Elderly Don't Get Enough Medical Care


Elders rest in front of a house in Pinggu, on the outskirts of Beijing on Nov. 17, 2012

Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Elders rest in front of a house in Pinggu, on the outskirts of Beijing on Nov. 17, 2012

By 2050, a quarter of China’s population is expected to be age 65 or older. Although the government has recently loosened its restrictive population policy to allow most couples to have two children, so far it doesn’t look likely that any forthcoming baby boom will save China from its rapidly aging population.

China’s current elderly, especially those living in rural areas, frequently endure chronic medical conditions without treatment, according to a new study in the journal International Health. Dai Baozhen of Jiangsu University’s Department of Health Policy & Management analyzed the results of China’s semi-regular “health and nutrition survey” for 2009, looking in particular at the responses from rural households in nine provinces.

Among his findings: China’s elderly are likely to be less educated than younger cohorts and often poorer. Nearly 70 percent of the rural elderly in the survey had an annual income of less than 5,000 renminbi ($810). Many also said their children had left home to work in cities, and while they might send money back, they couldn’t provide steady emotional support or help in obtaining and monitoring health care. Fifty-eight percent of the elderly respondents were illiterate, another barrier in obtaining health services.

It was not uncommon for China’s rural elderly to suffer chronic conditions, according to the study, including hypertension (18 percent), asthma (6 percent), and diabetes (3 percent). And those figures represent diagnosed conditions—the worrying possibility exists that many elderly suffer in the absence of any diagnosis. Fully a quarter of elderly were diagnosed with hypertension, and a third of those diagnosed with diabetes received no treatment.

Isolation and depression are also significant risks for rural elderly. China’s overall suicide rate has dropped sharply over the past two decades, especially among rural women under age 35. But among China’s elderly, it remains distressingly high. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong, cited by the Economist, the suicide rate for men in the Chinese countryside aged 70 to 74 is 41.7 per 100,000 (more than four times higher than the national average of 9.8 per 100,000).

As Jiangsu University’s Dr. Dai concludes: “Preventive health-care services and chronic disease management are urgently needed by rural elders in China.”

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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