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Open Access Research article

The relationship of living arrangements and depressive symptoms among older adults in sub-Saharan Africa

Brittany McKinnon1*, Sam Harper1 and Spencer Moore2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University, Purvis Hall, 1020 Pine Avenue West, Quebec H3A 1A2, Montreal, Canada

2 School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:682  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-682

Published: 25 July 2013

Abstract

Background

Older adults in sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly facing the twin challenges of reduced support from their adult children and taking on new roles caring for orphans and vulnerable children. How these changes affect the mental health of older adults is largely unknown.

Methods

We use data from the 2002–2003 World Health Surveys for 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to examine whether older adults who may be lacking adequate support through living alone or in skipped-generation households are at an increased risk of depressive symptoms compared to those living with at least one working-age adult. Using meta-regression, we also examine whether heterogeneity across countries in the prevalence of depressive symptoms or in the association between living arrangements and depressive symptoms is associated with HIV/AIDS prevalence and national economic status.

Results

The pooled prevalence of depressive symptoms among older adults was 9.2%. Older adults living alone had a 2.3% point higher predicted prevalence of depressive symptoms compared to individuals living with at least one working-age adult (95% confidence interval: 0.2%, 4.4%). None of the country characteristics examined explained heterogeneity across countries in the relationship between living arrangements and depressive symptoms. However, there was some evidence suggesting a positive association between depressive symptom prevalence and the severity of a country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Conclusion

As depressive symptoms are known to be predictive of poor quality of life and increased mortality, it is important to address how health and social policies can be put in place to mitigate the potentially detrimental effects of solitary living on the mental health of older persons in sub-Saharan Africa.

Keywords:
Older adults; Mental health; Living arrangements; Sub-Saharan Africa