Depression linked to costly chronic medical conditions and disability among aging minorities

August 28, 2019

More than 50 percent of older Chinese American immigrants experience depressive symptoms linked to increased disabilities and chronic health conditions, according to two new Rutgers studies.

The studies, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, examine the relationship between psychological well-being and the onset of disability and existence of comorbid chronic medical conditions among a cohort of roughly 3,000 older Chinese Americans aged 60 and older.

Researchers found study participants who reported depressive symptoms were more likely to suffer from onset of functional disabilities - the inability to perform activities of daily living - and mobility issues. They also found that comorbid depression and chronic health conditions increased emergency room visits and hospitalizations, worsened medical prognosis, and led to increased mortality.

"Depressive symptoms have extensive psychological and health consequences for older adults and the greater healthcare community," said lead researcher, XinQi Dong, director of the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research. "Our studies suggest a bidirectional relationship between depression and disability, in which the conditions reinforce each other. Further, those suffering from depressive symptoms are more likely to engage in negative health behaviors, such as physical inactivity, obesity, and smoking, and are less likely to adhere to treatment regimens. This behavior further exacerbates their medical conditions and leads to increased use of health services.

"As their physical health declines, older Chinese Americans frequently turn to hospitals and emergency departments to treat their symptoms, which does not address the underlying depression," Dong continued. "Economic implications of increased hospitalizations notwithstanding, without proper screening for depression, symptoms are left underrecognized and untreated, leading to poorer health outcomes and even death."

"What is very evident from these studies is that mental health status compounds the health and well-being of older Chinese Americans and increases their cost of care," said researcher Dexia Kong. "Consequently, the integration of behavioral health and primary care is essential to effectively serve this population and prevent functional disability which even further exacerbates medical treatment."

Key findings:"Depression disproportionately affects older Chinese Americans, which puts them at significant risk for developing functional disabilities and chronic health conditions," said Dong. "Our studies demonstrate the need to develop culturally appropriate interventions and screenings to address depressive symptoms and reduce the onset of disability in minority populations. Mental health professionals and primary care providers must work collaboratively to address vulnerable minority populations' diverse care needs. By working together, healthcare providers can provide a more equitable standard of care to all patients."
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About Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research

Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research advances health and well-being through meaningful, rigorous and impactful research in the critical areas of behavioral health, health services, health disparities, health policy, health economics, pharmacoepidemiology, and aging research.

Since its 1985 founding, the Institute has become nationally renowned for interdisciplinary and translational research. The Institute's 57,000 square foot facilities are home to six members elected to the National Academy of Medicine and 150 members representing over 30 schools, institutes, and units with adjunct members from 29 national and international universities.

Rutgers University

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