Physical disabilities related to ethnicity and social class among the elderly in rural China


A new study published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development estimated that in China, 14.3% of the population suffer from physical disabilities considered essential to daily life – but ethnic minority Chinese in rural China were 44% more likely to have one or more physical disabilities. disabilities compared to the Han Chinese, who are the majority nationwide.

“Ethnic health disparity is still an under-researched topic in China, which is surprising given that China is a multi-ethnic country with 56 ethnic groups,” says lead author Shen (Lamson) Lin, Ph.D. and researcher at the University of Toronto. Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

Han Chinese make up 92% of China’s total population. The remaining 55 ethnic groups are officially classified as Chinese ethnic minorities.

The study analyzed data from 16,589 people aged 45 and older as part of the 2018 China Family Panel Studies (CFPS), a nationally representative survey conducted by Peking University. The standardized Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADL) scale was used to assess older adults’ ability to perform important self-care activities and independent living skills, such as preparing and eating meals, managing cleaning, doing laundry, planning transportation and walking 300 meters unassisted.

In rural areas, 7.6% of those who identified as an ethnic minority reported 3 or more physical disabilities, compared to 4.7% of Han Chinese. No such trend was observed in the urban population.

Lin’s research also found that certain ethnic minority groups in rural China were more susceptible to physical disabilities. Mongols, Tibetans and the Yi ethnic minority were more than three times as likely to have three or more physical disabilities compared to Han Chinese. There were no significant differences in physical disabilities for the Miao ethnic minority, the Buyi ethnic minority, and the Manchu ethnic minority compared to the Han Chinese.

“The Mongol, Tibetan, and Yi ethnic groups mainly reside in high-altitude mountainous regions in China, such as the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, and they have adapted their livelihoods to the unique highland environment, which includes high pressure reduced atmospheric, highland climate and exposure to solar radiation,” Lin said. “The higher risks of physical disabilities among these three groups suggest that the highland habitat, which includes low oxygen and restricted environmental resources, may accelerate the process of human aging.”

Lin’s study also demonstrated that cumulative social vulnerabilities – including being part of an ethnic minority and having lower income and education – increased the likelihood of having physical disabilities among rural respondents. In rural China, ethnic minority populations from the poorest socioeconomic strata were more than 5 times more likely to have three or more physical disabilities compared to their moderate-to-high socioeconomic Han Chinese peers, after controlling for other confounding sociodemographic variables.

“My findings have important implications for the Healthy China 2030 policy agenda and the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in remote rural areas,” Lin said. “A number of promising anti-poverty initiatives have been put in place in China to address upstream social inequalities that could fundamentally improve the physical health and well-being of older people; however, more social resources need to be redirected to high altitude mountainous regions in China to improve the living conditions of ethnic minorities, especially those who are socio-economically disadvantaged.

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