Could Self-Neglect in Older Adults Be a Geriatric Syndrome?

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Self-neglect in older adults is a complex phenomenon characterized by inattention to health and hygiene, typically stemming from an inability or unwillingness to access potentially remediating services. Some aspects of self-neglect clinically resemble geriatric syndromes (e.g., falling, incontinence). The literature on self-neglect was comprehensively reviewed and its quality evaluated in the context of considering its candidacy for a geriatric syndrome. MEDLINE (1966–2004) was searched using self-neglect as a keyword. Using a “snowball” sampling strategy, associated terms (e.g., Diogenes' syndrome) were combined, selecting relevant papers and frequently cited references, assessing each one using specific criteria. Its candidacy for consideration for a geriatric syndrome was assessed based on the quality of data in four domains: multifactorial etiology, shared risk factors with other geriatric syndromes, association with functional decline, and association with increased mortality. The 54 articles reviewed included 24 case series, 13 theoretical articles, 11 observational studies, and six reviews; these were of highly variable methodological quality. The strongest evidence that self-neglect may be a geriatric syndrome includes its often multifactorial etiology, its clear independent association with increased mortality, and the fact that two other geriatric syndromes (cognitive impairment and depression) are risk factors for self-neglect. Self-neglect in older adults is a prevalent problem that appears to have at least some features of a geriatric syndrome. Insofar as the concept of geriatric syndrome has been a useful clinical and research paradigm to create interventions for vulnerable older adults, and no such strategies are available for this vexing and understudied clinical problem, future research is warranted in this area.

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