The ‘enormous challenge’ of ageing China’s cognitive and physical health needs revealed

By Gary Scattergood contact

- Last updated on GMT

China’s population is ageing at a rate never before seen globally. ©iStock
China’s population is ageing at a rate never before seen globally. ©iStock

Related tags: Population, China

China’s ageing population has poorer cognitive and physical function compared with their counterparts from 10 years ago, according to the largest study of its kind, published in The Lancet.

Researchers compared 19,528 people aged 80-105 in China who were born 10 years apart. In the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Study surveys taken in 1998 and 2008, the researchers estimated mortality rates and analysed data of participants’ physical ability (from three tests of whether they could stand up from a chair, pick up a book from the floor and turn around 360 degrees), cognitive function and self-reported problems in daily activities (eating, dressing, transferring, using the toilet, bathing and continence).

They found that that for octogenarians, mortality decreased from 10.3% in 1998 to 9.6% in 2008; for nonagenarians, mortality decreased from 24.1% to 23.4%; and from 40.7% to 38.0% for centenarians.

However, those surveyed in 2008 had worse physical function than their counterparts from 10 years earlier, and this was the same for all age groups. The same was true of cognitive function, where the average cognitive function score for octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians decreased between 1998 and 2008.

Despite this, the group born later reported fewer difficulties performing daily activities than those born 10 years earlier.

China’s population is ageing at a rate never before seen globally, with people living longer and historically low birth rates, due to the now abolished one child policy.

The implications this will have for health care needs can’t be underestimated, while the growing consumer base of people who may seek cognitive health supplements and products offers considerable industry potential.

The findings of our study provide a clear warning message to societies with ageing populations – although lifespans are increasing, other elements of health are both improving and deteriorating leading to a variety of health and social needs in the oldest-old population.”​ said lead author Professor Yi Zeng, National School of Development at Peking University (China) and Medical School of Duke University (USA).

Living well

“This combination poses an enormous challenge for health systems, social care and families around the world. In order to live well for longer, it is important to develop more services to meet the various needs of growing elderly populations. For those with disabilities this may include long-term and acute daily care as well as mobility aids. While for those living well, working opportunities, social and leisure activities, continued learning and psychological counselling could support them to continue living well for longer.”

The researchers noted that those assessed in 2008 may have reported fewer difficulties in their day-to-day lives as a result of having better amenities and tools that support them in their daily activities. However, they added that more in-depth studies will be needed to confirm how and why levels of self-reported disability in daily living decreased while observed levels of disability in physical and cognitive functions increased in 2008.

They also propose that further research could include prevalence of chronic diseases and other older age groups (those aged 65-79 years) to help fully understand the process of ageing healthily and could provide more evidence for the types of interventions needed to support this age group.

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