Hotter weather linked to increase in suicide among elderly, study led by University of HK finds

04-Jun-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Are Hong Kong’s hotter summers driving more elderly people to suicide?

A comprehensive study of data collected over decades has suggested a link between higher temperatures and the rate at which senior citizens are taking their own lives.

According to researchers, the method of suicide could be related to different temperature thresholds, a study led by the University of Hong Kong found. The study reviewed almost 8,000 suicide cases involving city residents aged 65 or above between 1976 and 2014.

There were more cases using violent methods, such as hanging, cutting, or falling off a building, when there were more days in a month where the maximum daily temperature exceeded 30.3 degrees Celsius, the study suggested. And when there were more days with the temperature reaching above 32.7 degrees, there were more suicide cases using non-violent acts, such as poisoning.

“Fewer people are aware of the relationship between summer… and emotional health and suicide,” said Dr Patsy Chau Pui-hing, an associate professor from HKU’s school of nursing, who led the study.

“When we talk about the link between weather and health, people might often think about winter, as it is well known that winter could have greater impact on illnesses, such as cardiovascular or respiratory diseases,” she said.

Chau said based on previous studies, one explanation for how temperature affected suicidal behaviour was that hot weather could trigger the release of stress-related hormones, which might lead to depression and anxiety, increasing the risk of suicide.

Summarising nearly four decades worth of data, the study found the overall monthly suicide rates among the elderly population were slightly higher between April and September.

There were 7,314 violent, and 630 non-violent, cases among elderly suicides during the years studied.

Researchers of the latest study said their findings were consistent with the existing literature that hot weather was associated with more cases of elderly people who took their lives through violent methods, and revealed such associations were also found for those who killed themselves with non-violent methods.

As the world’s climate changes, Hong Kong has seen an increase in the number of “very hot days”, meaning the daily maximum temperature reached 33 degrees or above.

There were nine such days in 1976, but the figure soared to 38 in 2016 the year with the most number of very hot days so far.

Elderly people have consistently had the highest suicide rate among all age groups in Hong Kong over the years.

According to statistics from the university’s centre for suicide research and prevention, the annual suicide rate among elderly people ranged from 23.6 to 46 per 100,000 people between 1981 and 2016.

On the other hand, the city’s overall suicide rate peaked at 18.8 in 2003, and saw a downward trend afterwards, dropping to 11.5 in 2017.

The study has recommended preventive measures be implemented when the maximum temperature in a day is forecast to reach 30.3 degrees.

These measures include targeting people from different sectors. For example, elderly community centres should encourage older people to visit their air-conditioned facilities, while security guards should check roof floors and open-air staircases in residential blocks more frequently, to look for older people who might be suicidal.

Shopping malls could also provide more seats in air-conditioned common areas for the elderly to stay away from the heat.

“These are some preliminary recommendations. We hope next we can develop a list of interventions,” said Chau, adding that the city does not have any weather-driven processes for preventing suicide among the elderly.

The study, funded by the Food and Health Bureau, is being reviewed by an international journal.

Almustafa Lee Lap-hong, general secretary of the Hong Kong Elderly Rights Association, suggested the government could consider offering subsidies to the elderly to cover electricity cost for using air conditioners at home, or to purchase the machine.

“For poorer elderly people who hope to use an air conditioner at home, their money for living expenses might not be able to cover the cost,” he said.


Category: Hong Kong

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