China’s Growing Ranks of Elderly Beset by Depression, Study Says

China’s old people are plagued by depression, illness and poverty, a survey showed, illustrating the challenge the country faces as its restrictive family-planning policy results in a surge in the elderly population.

Among people 60 years old and over, 22.9 percent, or 42.4 million, live on annual income of less than 3,200 yuan ($520), compared to 15.1 percent of people age 45 to 59, according to the survey, conducted in 2011-2012 by a team of academics from China, the U.S. and the World Bank which surveyed 17,708 people across China.

China faces the dilemma of becoming the first country in the world to grow old before entering the ranks of rich nations and paying for the surge in social-services demand. The proportion of China’s more than 1.3 billion people over age 60 is set to rise to 34 percent in 2050 from 12 percent in 2010, according to the report, which cited United Nations figures.

“China confronts rapid population aging at a relatively early stage of her economic development, which limits the amount of financial resources available for supporting the elderly,” the survey’s authors, including Zhao Yaohui of Peking University, wrote.

China’s challenge is even greater because more children are moving away from home and declining fertility means the elderly will have fewer people to support them, the report said.

Three decades of population planning that limited most urban couples to one child, and most rural families to one or two children, will cause a surge of China’s dependency ratio, a measure of the number of children and elderly against the working-age population. That means a smaller percentage of China’s population will be available to work.

Average Income

China’s per capita gross domestic product in 2012 of about $6,300 compares to average per capita GDP of about $40,000 or more in the U.S., Japan, Germany and the U.K.

China’s demographic transition may be eased by the fact that China’s elderly don’t feel as entitled to welfare as their peers in developed countries in Europe, the U.S. and Japan, according to Louis Kuijs, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc’s chief China economist in Hong Kong, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“There is this whole discussion going on about how China may be getting old before it gets rich,” Kuijs said in a phone interview. “It’s not completely obvious that it makes it harder to deal with the demographic issues. The welfare state is less developed -- it is leaner and meaner -- the government is rolling out more and more of a welfare state but it is still not as nearly developed as it is in Europe.”

More Depressed

The study also found that China’s elderly were more depressed than younger people. Forty percent, or 74 million people over 60, “display higher levels of depressive symptoms,” it said. About 40 million elderly people in China have undiagnosed hypertension, or high blood pressure, it said.

The study said China had done a “remarkable job” expanding health insurance to cover almost all elderly people. It said 92 percent of the elderly with an urban residence permit and 94 percent with a rural permit had some type of health insurance, higher than for working-age people age 45-59.