Mental health, rather than physical, determines well being in old age, finds study

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A positive frame of mind, it seems, is even more important than the right diet. New European research suggests that psychosocial factors such as anxiety and depression may have an even larger impact on well-being in later life than physical health.

The study, carried out by researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich (TUM), looked at data from 3,602 participants with an average age of 73.

The participants’ levels of subjective well-being were measured by a questionnaire from the World Health Organisation with the results split into two categories, either a ‘high’ level of well-being (score > 50) or ‘low’ (score ≤ 50). As the impact of stress on emotional well-being had not really been investigated before, the team chose explicitly to look at the effects of anxiety, depression and sleep disorders in this new research.

Low income and sleep disorders also had a negative effect on health. (Shutterstock)

The results showed that there was a high level of self-reported well-being in the majority (79%) of the respondents, with the average scores of well-being also above the threshold set by the WHO. However, some of the findings were less positive, with the team finding that in the ‘low’ group there was a particularly high number of women, about 24% compared to 18% for men.

When looking at the factors that affected the levels of well-being, the team found that it was mainly psychosocial factors – in particular depression and anxiety disorders – which had the strongest effect.

Low income and sleep disorders also had a negative effect, and, among women, living alone also significantly increased the probability of a low level of well-being. However, perhaps surprisingly, poor physical health, for example, low physical activity, appeared to have little effect.

“Aging itself is not inevitably associated with a decline in mood and quality of life,” said professor Karl-Heinz Ladwig, commenting on the results. “It is rather the case that psychosocial factors such as depression or anxiety impair subjective well-being,” he explained.

“The findings of the current study clearly demonstrate that appropriate services and interventions can play a major role for older people, especially for older women living on their own,” Ladwig said. “And this is all the more important, given that we know that high levels of subjective well-being are linked to a lower mortality risk.”

The results can be found published online in the journal BMC Geriatrics.