A happy life may not be enough to prevent cognitive decline

BOSTON — Feeling satisfied in life will only take certain older adults so far, according to researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health. While popular beliefs suggest that maintaining a smile throughout life can help boost both mental and physical health, a new study finds life satisfaction actually provides little benefit to older adults who also experience health or socioeconomic challenges.

Life satisfaction has long been associated with subsequent health developments, both physical and mental. Countless doctors believe a more positive outlook on one’s lot in life can work wonders in terms of physical and mental well-being. More specifically, many studies suggest a fulfilling and satisfying life may improve cognitive functioning as we grow old — often through the encouragement of healthy habits like keeping up with exercise and just generally leading a less stressful existence.

Most of those earlier projects assessed this relationship at a population level, as opposed to individually. Now, this closer assessment of the general population facilitated by the team at BU finds life satisfaction may not have a positive effect on all people.

This project analyzed the psychological well-being of a group of participants living in the United States and United Kingdom. Researchers noted that high life satisfaction had an association with increased cognitive functioning among most participants, yet it was less beneficial for people of low socioeconomic status, in poor health, or experiencing adverse psychological conditions.

This study is the first ever to examine the effects of psychological well-being on cognitive functioning among older individuals. It is key to note, however, that researchers observed no association whatsoever of average cognitive effects from psychological well-being across a population level. That means that without this more granular analysis, the potentially adverse effects of life satisfaction likely would have been overlooked.

“It was impressive to observe how a relationship with no associations on population average showed underlying differences based on sociodemographic factors, physical health, and psychosocial elements,” says lead study author Toshiaki Komura, a master of public health student at BUSPH, in a media release.

Older men playing chess outside in the city
(Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash)

Study authors stress these new insights highlight the importance of considering diversities in public health research in order to better understand who benefits from life satisfaction – and who may not.

“Our results indicate that the health benefit of experiencing high life satisfaction may be smaller among socially marginalized groups, so further research is needed to ensure potential interventions have equitable health impacts,” adds study senior author Dr. Koichiro Shiba, an assistant professor of epidemiology at BUSPH.

To conduct this research, study authors made use of a novel machine-learning method to analyze a nationally representative sample of survey data pertaining to both life satisfaction and cognitive functioning among over 15,000 adults (ages 50+) from both the United States and United Kingdom collected over the course of a series of four-year periods between 2010 and 2016.

The health-promoting effect of life satisfaction in older adults was only evident among participants with higher SES (socio-economic status), less pre-existing health problems, and better psychological functioning, which made up about half the survey participants.

The research team speculates that the physical, mental, or socioeconomic challenges low-SES individuals or adults in poorer health more typically experience may end up outweighing any possible cognitive benefits from life satisfaction. For instance, life satisfaction may boost cognitive functioning by promoting physical activity, but exercise isn’t even possible if an individual is not in basic good health, or lacks access to resources to exercise (green spaces, gyms).

These confounding findings that seem to fly in the face of popular belief may also be attributable to a concept called “response shift,” which involves changing internal standards, values, and one’s conceptualization of quality of life.

“Response shift is the adjustment of one’s internal view of their quality of life when facing challenging circumstances in which their health status is severely deteriorated,” Komura explains. “In such situations, their standard of quality of life may shift to maintain a favorable psychological environment.”

According to the theory, people with disadvantaged socioeconomic, health, and psychosocial conditions may have reported life satisfaction that had “adjusted” to their circumstances.

“Our findings suggest such adjusted subjective feelings might have limited health-promoting effects on cognitive functioning,” Komura concludes.

The study is published in the journal SSM – Mental Health.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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