TL;DR – Always exercise critical thinking.
There was this shocking headline in the news recently:
“Half of S’pore’s elderly found to be frail, mostly due to malnutrition”
Say what now? Half of Singapore’s elderly are frail?! That’s terrible! And we thought we are a first world country! How can we not take good care of the elderly? So heartless!
Let’s back up a bit. The article cited an ongoing study that has spanned 14 years. The study involved almost 3,000 elderly aged 55 and above. The article claimed that the study found half of the elderly here are frail.
What has the research actually found?
The lead researcher of the study is Associate Professor Ng Tze Pin, who is Research Director at the Department of Psychological Medicine, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore.
I then went to search for research papers by Associate Professor Ng Tze Pin that have anything to do with a longitudinal ageing study. We found a few. In all of those, there is no mention that half of the elderly in the study are found to be frail.
In one paper, it was stated that 2% of the elderly in the study were found to be frail, and 32% were found to be prefrail.
In another paper, it was stated that in the population of elderly involved in the study who live in the community, approximately 3% and 33% were frail and pre-frail.
I can’t find any research paper that found that half of Singapore elderly were frail.
Then why the headline in TODAY?
The article in Straits Times about this study was better. It reported that the frailty study “found that 5% of the 1,685 respondents were physically frail while 44% showed symptoms of frailty and 51% were robust”.
Showing symptoms of frailty is very different from being actually physically frail.
If the two were the same, the study won’t differentiate between the two.
To lump the two together the way the TODAY article did would be irresponsible journalism.
We definitely can do more for the elderly
The misleading headline by TODAY aside, the articles do highlight a few important points. Of those who were found to be frail,
- Half were found to be malnourished
- Half were either single, divorced, or widowed
- 41.1% lived in one- to two-room public housing
Associate Professor Ng explained:
“Eating is also very social, you’re more likely to eat more with others than alone. So imagine an old person living alone at home, and they’re probably not eating full meals every day, especially if they have no spouse. Also, they may be too poor to afford nutritious, good meals, and more often than not they are simple and bland.”
As a result, these elderly end up being malnourished, which in turn can cause them to be physically frail. Those who are physically frail have a higher chance of becoming functionally disabled, or have physically or mental impairments that limits their ability to live independently.
Given the rise in number of elderly living alone, unless something is done, this problem is set to worsen. It’s not something that we can solve just by giving money to the elderly. Instead, the community needs to get involved. We need to reach out to those elderly living alone, and get them involved in various community activities where they can make friends. The government definitely needs to play a role. But all of us need to pitch in too.
And that’s regardless of whether half of the elderly are frail or not. It’s simply just the right thing to do – sensationalist headline or not.