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Researchers may have discovered the secret to aging gracefully

According to a news release from the University College London, happiness may be the secret to aging gracefully. Older people who are happy maintain better physical function and faster walking speeds as they age, compared with people who are unhappy. Researchers looked at 3,199 men and women aged 60 years or older in England over an eight-year period to investigate the link between happiness and physical well-being.

After being separated into three age groups: 60-69 years old, 70-79 and 80 plus, participants were then asked to respond to statements, such as “I enjoy the things that I do,” on a 4-point scale. The researchers then determined walking speed with a gait test and performed personal interviews to assess whether participants had trouble 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,” posits lead author Andrew Steptoe of the University College London’s Department of Epidemiology & Public Health. “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.”

According to the researchers, participants in the 60-69 year age group had higher levels of well-being, as did participants with higher socioeconomic status, education and people who were married and gainfully employed. As was expected, people with health issues like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, stroke and depression had lower levels of well-being. Unhappy people were more than three times as likely as their happy peers to develop problems in their daily physical activities.

Interestingly, the researchers note that even when better health, age and material wealth are taken into consideration, the relationship between happiness and aging gracefully still 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,” says 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.”

Curious about the reason for this effect, the researchers wondered whether people who do not enjoy life are already sick, have mobility issues or might be depressed. After taking these factors into consideration, they were only responsible for part of the link between positive well-being and later physical-well being. The researchers “suspect that there may be direct links with biological processes in the body that influence physical function.”

“This is an observational study, so causal conclusions cannot be drawn. But our results provide evidence that reduced enjoyment of life may be related to the future disability and mobility of older people,” the authors write.

The study’s findings are described in greater detail in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.