New 10-year study on elderly

SINGAPORE - To help cut the rates of dementia and depression in the elderly, Singapore has embarked on a study that will track the mental health of 600 Jurong residents over 10 years.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is MP for Jurong GRC, highlighted the importance of the study given Singapore's ageing population and the need to focus on prevention.

Speaking at the launch at Jurong Point on Thursday, he stressed: "The scale of the problem is going to grow rapidly because of our ageing population and we have to act now."

Today, about 28,000 people in Singapore above 60 have dementia, a brain disorder which affects the memory, intellect and personality. The number is expected to soar to 80,000 by 2030. The prevalence of depression in the elderly here is twice that of dementia.

Mr Tharman also accepted a $1.8 million donation from Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho temple on Thursday. The money will be used for the Jurong Ageing Study, to be conducted by the National University of Singapore Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

This is the first time that such a study to prevent and alleviate symptoms of depression and dementia in the elderly is taking place in Asia. Previous studies around the world usually focused on the prevalence of the diseases.

"Depression and dementia affect life expectancy and quality of life and increase health cost," said one of the main researchers of the study, Professor Kua Ee Heok.

He added that a rise in depression could cause elderly suicide rates to climb. In 2007, the suicide rate here for those aged 65 and above was 27.6 for every 100,000, while it was about 14 in 100,000 in the United States.

As part of the Jurong study, residents will have their existing mental health state assessed at the start. They will then take part in regular health talks and therapeutic activities through the 10 years. The impact of these activities on their mental health will be monitored.

The study started in March with a 10-week pilot programme that roped in 108 elderly Jurong residents. They attended weekly health sessions, where they picked up tips to manage conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, which put people at a higher risk of developing depression and dementia.

Participants also took part in one of four activities - music, art, mindfulness therapy, which involves meditation, and taiji. Results from the pilot showed that the activities reduced anxiety levels and symptoms of depression. Said Prof Kua: "The results are encouraging and our target is to reduce the rate of depression by 50 per cent."

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