I immediately thought of my late grandmother when I found out about a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Researchers from University College London discovered a connection between people’s self-assessed happiness and their day-to-day ability to function as they age. Those who said they enjoyed life more, for instance, were better able to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) and walk faster as they grew older than were those who said they enjoyed life less.
Grandma lived into her late 90s, ultimately moving from her home to a long-term care community, living independently for a while before relying on assistance for some of her needs. She was relatively content and healthy for all but her last year, participating in the community’s activities and continuing to do needlework and write poetry. We exchanged letters and visited, and she kept up on current events by watching television or listening to her radio. Grandma found pleasure even in simple things—gazing out her window at newly planted flowers or feeling a warm breeze while sitting in the sun. She was always ready with a smile and words of encouragement.
But back to the London researchers. They arrived at their findings after spending eight years studying 3,200 people who were at least 60 years old. The men and women were divided into three age categories: 60 to 69 years, 70 to 79 years and 80 years and older, and they rated their enjoyment of life using a four-point scale in response to these assertions:
- "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.”
- "I feel full of energy these days."
The investigators conducted personal interviews to determine whether participants had ADL-related impairments, and they used a gait test to gauge walking speed. People who perceived themselves as happy and enjoying life experienced a slower decline in physical function and were less likely to develop impairments to tasks such as dressing and getting in and out of bed, and their walking speed declined at a slower rate than that experienced by those who viewed themselves as less content.
“Our previous work has shown that older people with greater enjoyment of life are more likely to survive over the next 8 years,” says lead author Andrew Steptoe, DPhil, DSc. “What this study shows is that they also keep up better physical function." He and his co-authors say that the study results add to existing evidence that our happiness may be related to our future disability and mobility and that "efforts to enhance well-being at older ages may have benefits to society and healthcare systems."
Because of the study's design, the researchers can't say that a healthy attitude can cause better physical health in some regards, only that the two appear to be linked. I’m not sure exactly how my grandmother’s outlook affected her physical functioning, but I can tell you that she was an inspiration and the source of many years of joy for her family and friends—and the reason for the smile on my face as I write this piece. Her life and legacy, and this study’s results, are reminders of the power we may hold over our own health and happiness—and the effect we can have on others.