The prevalence of depression in the older adult population appears to be high worldwide. An analysis of 15 countries in North America and Europe showed that depression is the most common mental disorder in older adults, with a 3.3% prevalence for current cases of major depression and a lifetime incidence of 16.5% for major depression (Volkert, Schulz, Härter, Wlodarczyk, & Andreas, 2013). This higher prevalence rate is strongly correlated with older age (Blixen, Wilkinson, & Schuring, 1994; Volkert et al., 2013). Older adults in developing countries also experience depression (Dardas et al., 2019). A recent study reported a depression rate of 11.4% among community-dwelling older adults in rural India (Behera et al., 2016).
In China, the burden of depression has increased in response to an increasingly aging population (Bao et al., 2015). Zhang, Xu, and Nie's (2011) meta-analysis reported that 22.6% of Chinese older adults had depressive symptoms. In 2016, 139 million people in China were older than 65. This number is projected to grow to at least 300 million by 2050, which equates to 44% of the worldwide population (Bao et al., 2015).
Although there is no clear evidence supporting a relationship between rates of depression in a country and its economic status, there is sufficient evidence of the relationship between an individual's socioeconomic status and depression (McInerney, Mellor, & Nicholas, 2012). In addition, individuals with lower education levels have more depressive symptoms than those with higher levels of education, and a higher risk of developing depression (Koster et al., 2006). In the older adult population, those with higher levels of education are at a reduced risk of depression (Miech & Shanahan, 2000).
Social support is a protective factor for depression, and high social support counteracts the negative effects of depression (Baiyewu, Yusuf, & Ogundele, 2015; Bruce, 2015; Lee, Kahana, & Kahana, 2016). A study conducted in China reported that loneliness is a predictor of depression among older adults living in nursing homes, even after controlling for age, gender, marital status, education level, and medical history (Gan, Xie, Duan, Deng, & Yu, 2015).
The presence of chronic disease predicts depression among older adults (Scott et al., 2007). A study with approximately 85,000 older adults from 17 countries reported that individuals who had one or more chronic diseases were more likely to be diagnosed with depression (Scott et al., 2007). Another factor that might be associated with depression is chronic pain. The rate of depression increases with the level of pain (Behera et al., 2016). However, some researchers also argue that depression predicts increased levels of chronic pain, as opposed to pain predicting higher levels of depression (Mossey & Gallagher, 2004). Overall health status and depression are often linked, yet it is unclear whether overall health is causally related to depression. Although some researchers argue that the presence of depression causes a decrease in overall health, others believe that depression is a strong predictor of a decline in health status among individuals (Moussavi et al., 2007).
Research regarding the role of health behaviors and depressive symptoms provides inconsistent results. Some research reports smoking and depressive symptoms are correlated, especially in adult populations (Tjora et al., 2014). Some studies even suggest that individuals who smoke are more likely to be depressed (Vogel, Hurford, Smith, & Cole, 2003). Similarly, an international longitudinal study reported that excessive alcohol consumption is related to a higher incidence of depression (Bellos et al., 2016). However, a recent review shows that depression may also influence behavioral changes, though the causal relationship is unclear (Fluharty, Taylor, Grabski, & Munafò, 2017). The authors also called for more research to determine whether behavioral factors, such as smoking and drinking, are risk factors for depression (Fluharty et al., 2017).
In summary, although multiple risk factors have been found to be associated with depressive symptoms among the older adult population, most studies have been conducted in Western countries. Due to China's unique sociocultural, economic, and political environment, risk factors that are related to depressive symptoms among Chinese older adults may be different from other countries. Exploring depressive symptoms and associated risk factors among Chinese older adults living in a rural community is the first step toward understanding depression among this population. This exploration also further contributes to the development of preventive and control strategies for depression (Sorrell, 2016). To that extent, the purpose of the current study was to explore risk factors related to depressive symptoms among Chinese older adults in rural communities.
Data were derived from the Fifth National Health Services Survey in Fujian Province, China. Face-to-face interviews were conducted in participants' homes. Fujian Province is a relatively developed area in China. In 2013, the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was RMB 57,856 (∼$8,900 U.S. dollars), higher than the national average of RMB 41,908 (∼$6,447 U.S. dollars). Of its 37.74 million residents, 14.81 million lived in rural areas. Using multi-stage random sampling, the survey included eight counties, 40 townships (districts), 80 villages (communities), 4,800 households, and 14,393 residents in Fujian who provided usable responses. Of total participants, 82.1% completed the questionnaire themselves, whereas the remaining were completed by a family member. For the current study, data provided by 2,586 rural older adults age ≥60 were included.
Depressive symptoms were measured by a single question asking participants whether they felt depressed. Possible responses were not at all, somewhat depressed, and very depressed. Participants who responded not at all were classified as the no depressive symptoms group; those who chose either of the latter responses were classified as the depressed symptoms group. Single-item measures for depression were found valid and reliable compared to other previously validated measures (Lefèvre et al., 2012; Young, Nguyen, Roth, Broad-berry, & Mackay, 2015).
Based on the literature review, three groups of factors were examined that may be associated with depressive symptoms: sociodemographic factors, health risk factors, and behavioral factors. Sociodemographic factors were age, gender, education, having a partner, and socioeconomic status. All participants were classified into one of five economic status groups: highest, higher, median, lower, and lowest, meaning <20%, 20% to <40%, 40% to <60%, 60% to 80%, and >80%, respectively, of annual household expenditure per capita. This measure was used because some studies suggest that for developing countries expenditure data provide a better proxy of household economic status than income data, as the latter are likely to be underreported (Xu, Toobert, Savage, Pan, & Whitmer, 2008). Health risk factors measured were body mass index, having at least one chronic disease, lack of mobility, experiencing pain or feeling uncomfortable, unable to undertake self-care, and unable to perform household chores. Behavioral factors measured were smoking status, drinking alcohol in the previous 12 months, and not exercising at least once per week.
All data were analyzed using SPSS 21.0. Chi-square test was used to examine the association among sociodemographic, health risk, and behavioral factors with depressive symptoms in rural older adults. Binary logistic regression was undertaken to determine the magnitude of the relationship for those factors that were found to be related to depression.
Of the 2,586 participants, 1,461 (56.5%) were 60 to 69 years old; 1,263 (48.8%) were female; 2,258 (87.3%) had attended elementary school or less; 1,903 (73.6%) had a partner; and 1,867 were classified as having a median or low household economic status (72.2%), including 271 (10.5%) participants living under the poverty line (Table 1).
Participant Demographics (N = 2,586)
Three hundred sixty-six (14.2%) participants reported depressive symptom. Those aged 70 to 79 years and those aged >80 years were more likely to report depressive symptoms than the 60- to 69-year-old group (p < 0.001). More females reported depressive symptoms than males (p < 0.05). Participants whose formal education terminated at elementary school or earlier were more likely to report depressive symptoms than those with a higher education level (p < 0.01). This relationship to education was also true for older adults without a partner (p < 0.001). There were no significant differences in depressive symptoms based on economic status (p > 0.05), but those who were living below the poverty line were more likely to report elevated depressive symptoms (p < 0.001) (Table 1).
In addition, older adults who were underweight, had at least one chronic disease, were not mobile, were unable to care for themselves, unable to perform household chores, and experienced pain were more likely to report depressive symptoms (all p < 0.001). The rate of depressive symptoms was low for smokers (p < 0.01) and those who had drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months (p < 0.01). There was no significant difference in the incidence of depressive symptoms between the exercise and non-exercise groups (p > 0.05).
Binary logistic regression showed that after controlling factors such as gender, age, education level, poverty, and having a partner, the risk factors of depressive symptoms included experiencing pain (odds ratio [OR] = 10.52, p < 0.001), poor physical function and inability to undertake self-care (OR = 2.77, p < 0.001), and inability to perform household chores (OR = 2.59, p < 0.001) (Table 2). Smoking, drinking, and lack of mobility were no longer associated with depressive symptoms.
Association Between Health Behaviors, Chronic Disease, Physical Function, and Depressive Symptoms Among Chinese Rural Older Adults After Controlling for Demographic and Socioeconomic Factors
The current study examined risk factors associated with depressive symptoms among older adults in rural China. The prevalence rate of depressive symptoms among Chinese older adults in the rural parts of Fujian was 14.2%, which is lower than the previously reported rate of 23.6% among older adults in China (Li, Zhang, Shao, Qi, & Tian, 2014) and the reported rate of 74.46% in Chinese older adults who did not have children or whose children had departed from home (Xie, Zhang, Peng, & Jiao, 2010).
Risk factors related to depressive symptoms were older age, being female, low education level, and having no partner, which were all consistent with previous studies among Asian populations (Hu et al., 2007; Tsai, Yeh, & Tsai, 2005). After adjusting for demographic and socioeconomic factors, having pain was revealed as the most profound factor related to depressive symptoms among older adults in rural China. Although this conclusion was consistent with previous research (Behera et al., 2016), the current study revealed that Chinese rural older adults were on average 10 times more likely to have depressive symptoms when pain presented, which was much higher than previous studies. Although no causal relationship can be identified from the current study design, it is possible that this relationship is reciprocal (Hamer, Bates, & Mishra, 2011). Previous studies have also revealed that pain may influence depressive symptoms by limiting an individual's activity participation levels (Parmelee, Harralson, Smith, & Schumacher, 2007). Regardless, offering pain relief remedies may help lower the risk of depressive symptoms, or help control the pain associated with depressive symptoms.
In addition, physical functions, such as the inability to provide self-care and perform household chores, were also risk factors for depressive symptoms. As with pain, whether depressive symptoms cause loss of physical function or vice versa is unable to be determined (Kraemer, Stice, Kazdin, Offord, & Kupfer, 2001). In a longitudinal study, depressive symptoms predicted declines in all domains of physical function among older adults (Turvey et al., 2009). Other studies have reported depressive symptoms as a consequence of loss of physical function (Scopaz, Piva, Wisniewski, & Fitzgerald, 2009). In this case, improving physical functioning may help decrease depressive symptoms. Unfortunately, access to relevant services, such as occupational therapy, remains limited for rural older adults in China (Shi & Howe, 2016). Other activities that could improve physical function, such as tai chi, should be promoted.
Unlike previous studies, the current study showed that smoking and drinking behaviors were inversely associated with depressive symptoms, but only when demographic and socioeconomic factors were not controlled. This finding may be due to the fact that only individuals in more favorable financial situations in China can afford non-essential goods, such as cigarettes and alcohol, especially older adults living in rural areas. Meanwhile, previous studies have shown that a better financial situation is a protective factor for depressive symptoms, which may cancel out the negative effects of smoking and drinking (McInerney et al., 2012). Overall, the relationship between risk behaviors and depressive symptoms among Chinese rural older adults needs further exploration.
There are several limitations of the current study. First, the study sample was restricted to Fujian Province, which is not representative of the entire country. Second, although several risk factors for depressive symptoms were identified, the study design did not permit the identification of any causal relationship. There may be a mediation effect between those risk factors and depressive symptoms, which should be examined in future studies.
Implications for Practice
Living with pain is a primary factor associated with depression among Chinese rural older adults. In the Chinese culture, pain is considered something individuals have to tolerate or endure (Edrington et al., 2009). The current results suggest that community-based nursing programs for older adults are needed in rural China. These programs should focus on providing education and treatment for pain management, as well as helping older adults improve daily physical function. As women without a partner are at higher risk of developing depression, nurses and mental health professionals should pay special attention when working with this population. Screening protocols and counseling services for depression should be provided upon diagnosis.
The average lifespan in China has increased to 75.99 years (The World Bank, 2017), a benefit of the fast-growing economy and increased access to health care in the past decade. Although people's physical health has improved, mental health has received much less attention, especially that of older adults in rural areas. The current study identified risk factors that are strongly related to depressive symptoms among older adults in rural China, thus providing much needed additional evidence in this area.
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Participant Demographics (N = 2,586)
|Variable||n (%)||p Value|
|No Depressive Symptoms (n = 2,220)||Elevated Depressive Symptoms (n = 366)|
| Age (years)||<0.001|
| 60 to 69||1,310 (59)||151 (41.3)|
| 70 to 79||654 (29.5)||126 (34.4)|
| 80||256 (11.5)||89 (24.3)|
| Female gender||1,063 (47.9)||200 (54.6)||<0.05|
| Elementary school or less||1,919 (86.4)||339 (92.6)|
| Junior high school||256 (11.5)||23 (6.3)|
| Senior high school and above||45 (2)||4 (1.1)|
| Having a partner||1,679 (75.6)||224 (61.2)||<0.001|
| Economic status||>0.05|
| Lowest (quintile 1)||768 (34.6)||136 (37.2)|
| Lower (quintile 2)||481 (21.7)||81 (22.1)|
| Median (quintile 3)||354 (15.9)||47 (12.8)|
| Higher (quintile 4)||301 (13.6)||56 (15.3)|
| Highest (quintile 5)||316 (14.2)||46 (12.6)|
| Under poverty line||202 (9.1)||69 (18.9)||<0.001|
| Body mass index||<0.001|
| Normal weight||1,597 (71.9)||244 (66.7)|
| Underweight||316 (14.2)||84 (23)|
| Overweight||307 (13.8)||38 (10.4)|
| Having at least one chronic disease||910 (41)||244 (66.7)||<0.001|
| Difficulty in mobility||218 (9.8)||178 (48.6)||<0.001|
| Having pain/feeling uncomfortable||415 (18.7)||299 (81.7)||<0.001|
| Unable to take care of oneself||110 (5)||157 (42.9)||<0.001|
| Unable to perform household chores||171 (7.7)||189 (51.6)||<0.001|
| Smoking||622 (28)||73 (19.9)||<0.01|
| Drinking over past 12 months||484 (22)||53 (14.8)||<0.01|
| Not exercising at least once per week||2,030 (91.4)||340 (92.9)||>0.05|
Association Between Health Behaviors, Chronic Disease, Physical Function, and Depressive Symptoms Among Chinese Rural Older Adults After Controlling for Demographic and Socioeconomic Factors
|Parameters||OR||95% CI||p Value|
|Body mass index||>0.05|
| Normal weight||1|
| Underweight||0.94||[0.66, 1.35]|
| Overweight||0.63||[0.40, 0.99]|
|Having one or more chronic diseases||<0.05|
| Yes||1.36||[1.02, 1.83]|
|Difficulty in mobility||>0.05|
| Yes||0.76||[0.48, 1.21]|
|Unable to provide self-care||<0.001|
| Yes||2.77||[1.69, 4.56]|
|Unable to perform household chores||<0.001|
| Yes||2.59||[1.58, 4.25]|
|Having pain/feeling uncomfortable||<0.001|
| Yes||10.52||[7.62, 14.54]|
| Yes||0.76||[0.51, 1.14]|
| Yes||0.91||[0.61, 1.37]|