Advancing age is broadly associated with declining cognitive, physical and mental health. As part of a new study, researchers analysed how distinctive factors, such as wisdom, loneliness, income and sleep quality, impact – for good and bad – the physical and mental functioning of older persons.
A team of researchers found that physical health correlated with both cognitive function and mental health.
Specifically, cognitive function was significantly associated with physical mobility, wisdom, and satisfaction with life. Physical health was associated with mental well-being, resilience, and younger age. Mental health was linked to optimism, self-compassion, income and lower levels of loneliness and sleep disturbances.
“Continuing care senior housing communities are important sites for studying and promoting health in older adults,” said Dilip Jeste, lead author of the study.
According to researchers, most people focus on diseases and risk factors, like old age, unhealthy diet and lack of activity. These are important, of course, but we also need to focus on areas that make up the whole person.
“Psychological traits like optimism, resilience, wisdom, and self-compassion were found to be protective, while loneliness seemed to be a risk factor. An 85-year-old can be functioning better than a 65-year-old due to protective and risk factors,” Jeste explained.
According to the researcher, ageing persons do not necessarily receive the support of younger family members who can serve as caregivers.
“Younger family members have jobs and children to take care of. So, older adults often have to choose between staying at home and feeling lonely versus moving to a more supportive and socially engaging senior housing system. This becomes an important but complex decision impacted by a large number of factors, including the financial cost of the senior housing,” said co-author Danielle Glorioso.
A popular model of supported senior housing provides a continuum of care, from independent living to assisted living to full-time care for significant physical and cognitive impairment. For the majority of continuing care senior housing facilities, costs increase as residents transition to greater levels of assisted living.
“Delaying these transitions through facilitating longer independent living should be an important health care goal. Our findings shed light on areas that need to be a focus for seniors to live full, enriched lives,” said Jeste.
One hundred and twelve residents participated in the study, with a mean age of 84. Sixty-eight per cent were female; 69 per cent possessed a college education, 41 per cent were married, and 72 per cent reported total annual incomes exceeding $50,000.
Jeste said more longitudinal studies involving diverse samples of older adults are necessary to determine if psychosocial and other variables are potential risks or protective factors related to cognitive, physical and mental health and diseases.
“The eventual goal would be to develop new health-focused interventions based on such research. Senior centres in the community should incorporate activities that address physical, social and mental aspects. We can all do something to improve and strengthen the quality of life of our ageing population,” Jeste explained.