By Randy Dotinga
MONDAY, Jan. 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Happier seniors can look forward to greater mobility as they age than their gloomier peers, new research suggests.
The findings don't prove that happiness preserves mobility. However, "the research suggests that enjoyment of life contributes to healthier and more active old age," said study author Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London. And it's not just because healthier people are happier and more energetic, he said.
The researchers, who study happiness and how it relates to life, wanted to understand the physical effects of happiness.
"We have previously shown that positive well-being and enjoyment of life are predictors of longer life," Steptoe said. "Older people who report greater enjoyment are less likely to die over the next five to eight years than those with lower enjoyment of life."
For this study, published Jan. 20 in CMAJ, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers tracked almost 3,200 men and women aged 60 and over in England. The participants took surveys designed to test their levels of well-being. For instance, they were asked if they enjoy the things they do, being in the company of other people and if they feel full of energy. They also responded to questions about their ability to handle day-to-day physical activities such as getting dressed and showering. Some took a test that measured how fast they walked.
Over the eight years of the study, only 4 percent of people who enjoyed life the most -- those in the top third of the total sample -- developed problems physically handling day-to-day activities, Steptoe said. But that number shot up to 17 percent among those who showed the least enjoyment -- the people in the bottom third.
Greater life satisfaction at the study's start was also associated with slower decline in walking speed, the researchers added.
"These associations could be due to many things: the people with greater enjoyment of life could be more affluent, have less physical illness or disability to start with, or have healthier lifestyles at the outset, and these factors could predict the changes in physical function over time," Steptoe said. "But what we found is that baseline health, economic circumstances and lifestyle explain only about half the association between enjoyment of life and deterioration in function. So there is more to it than that."
Steptoe said that less stress (and, potentially, more happiness) could contribute to better health by protecting the body from the harmful effects of stress hormones.
The research "suggests that among other things, we should think about the positive aspects of life and experience of older people," Steptoe said. "Not only are these important issues in themselves, they might have benefits in terms of physical function. These could in turn help us contain the spiraling costs of social and health care among older sectors of society."
James Maddux, a professor emeritus of psychology with the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said the findings are convincing and reflect other research.
"Healthy people are usually happier, and happy people are usually healthier," he said.
However, he said, it's important to be cautious about the conclusions. "All we can conclude is some kind of relation between physical health and happiness and life satisfaction," Maddux noted. "The findings do not tell us whether a great sense of well-being results in improved health or whether improved health results in a greater sense of well-being."