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The power of optimism in older age

A recent study finds that optimism can help older adults decrease negative effects of physical limitations on their life satisfaction
April 20, 2022

As a person ages, activity limitations can affect their ability to live independently. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults 80 years and older are 43 percent more likely to have physical limitations than their younger counterparts aged 50-59. In turn, functional limitations and barriers to living independently can impact life satisfaction—attitudes and beliefs about quality of life.

While previous studies have focused on the association between activity limitations and life satisfaction, few studies have examined how optimism can decrease the effects of activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs) on life satisfaction.

Matthew Lee Smith, PhD, MPH, associate professor in Environmental & Occupational Health at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, along with Kent Jason Go Cheng, PhD, from Syracuse University, and Darcy Jones (DJ) McMaughan, PhD, from Oklahoma State University, recently published a study examining the relationship between activity limitations and life satisfaction in the Journal of Applied Gerontology.

Using data from the 2008-2018 Health and Retirement Study Leave Behind Survey waves, the team examined if activity limitations were negatively associated with life satisfaction, if optimism was positively associated with life satisfaction, and if optimism lessened the impact of activity limitations on life satisfaction among middle-aged and older adults over time.

The average age of the sample was 68.5 years, and the majority of respondents were white, married women who were not in the labor force and had moderate-to-high levels of optimism, life satisfaction and functional ability.

“Mean-centered age was positively associated with life satisfaction, suggesting a slight increase in life satisfaction for every additional year lived,” Smith said. “Race, Hispanic origin, marital status, and self-rated health appeared to have strong associations with life satisfaction. As activity limitations increased, life satisfaction statistically significantly decreased; however, an increase in optimism was related to an increase in life satisfaction.”

“This current study shows that optimism can positively influence life satisfaction, and optimism can attenuate the negative effects of activity limitations on life satisfaction,” Smith added.

Although the study was one of few looking at the relationship between activity limitations and life satisfaction/optimism, the research team notes that further research is needed to explore how optimism training (guided exercises that urge individuals to focus on positive life experiences) could impact older adults’ life satisfaction.

“This study reinforces that not every adult with difficulties performing ADLs or IADLs has low levels of life satisfaction. Strategies to improve optimism and other positive perceptions may have promise to increase life satisfaction and protect middle-aged and older adults from the negative effects of functional limitations.”

— Lauren Rouse

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