Enjoying life helps to keep you healthy

21 January 2014

Happy older person

People who enjoy life maintain better physical function in their daily activities and keep up faster walking speeds as they age, compared with people who enjoy life less, according to a new study led by Professor Andrew Steptoe (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health).

The research, published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), was based on data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). It followed 3,199 men and women aged 60+ in England over an eight year period in order to examine the link between positive well-being and physical well-being.

Participants were divided into three age categories: 60-69 years old, 70-79 and 80+. UCL researchers then assessed the participants’ enjoyment of life on a 4-point scale in response to statements such as: “I enjoy the things that I do”, “I enjoy being in the company of others”, "On balance, I look back on my life with a sense of happiness” and “I feel full of energy these days”.

Older people who enjoy life are also at lower risk for developing problems with activities of daily living, and for showing declines in physical function. It appears that enjoyment of life contributes to a healthier and more active old age.

Professor Andrew Steptoe (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health)

The researchers then gauged walking speed with a gait test and conducted personal interviews to determine whether participants were impaired in daily activities such as getting out of bed, getting dressed, bathing and showering.

“The study shows that older people who are happier and enjoy life more show slower declines in physical function as they age,” says lead author Professor Andrew Steptoe. “They are less likely to develop impairments in daily activities such as dressing or getting in or out of bed, and their walking speed declines at a slower rate than those who enjoy life less.”

Participants in the 60-69 year age bracket had higher levels of well-being, as did people with higher socioeconomic status, education and people who were married and working. Not surprisingly, people with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, stroke and depression had lower levels of enjoyment of life.

People with low well-being were more than three times as likely as their positive counterparts to develop problems in their daily physical activities.

“(However it) is not because the happier people are in better health, or younger, or richer, or have more healthy lifestyles at the outset," write the authors in the paper. "Even when we take these factors into account, the relationship persists.”

"We have previously found that enjoyment of life is a predictor of longer life; so older people who report greater enjoyment are less likely to die over the next 5 to 8 years than those with lower enjoyment of life," explains Professor Steptoe. "What this study showed was that older people who enjoy life are also at lower risk for developing problems with activities of daily living, and for showing declines in physical function.  It appears that enjoyment of life contributes to healthier and more active old age.

"The first thing we thought about is whether the reason for this effect is that people who do not enjoy life are already sick or have mobility problems, or perhaps they are depressed.  When we measured these factors and added them to our analyses, they were responsible for part of the association between enjoyment of life and later function, but only part of it. Lifestyle factors such as regular physical activity and smoking do not appear to have been responsible either.  So we suspect that there may be direct links with biological processes in the body that influence physical function."

-Ends-


Media contact: David Weston

Image caption: Happy older person, by PennStateNews on Flickr


Links: