November 9, 2010

Aging Like Wine

So often studies tell us what not to do. Finally, here's one that tells you what you need to do to age well.

A ten-year study suggests that people have a lot more control over how aging affects their health than is commonly believed. While the study doesn't show how to feel like an 18-year old at 80, it does suggest how to feel 10 years younger than your actual age.

Many approaches focus on negative health factors to avoid: what not to do. This study focused on what to do to maintain good health as one ages.

On average, the overall health of all participants declined over the eight to ten year span being measured. But it declined much less in those who scored high on all three protective behaviors.

Three separate factors — having a sense of control over one's life, having friends and family for social support, and engaging in physical exercise — were found to have a pronounced protective effect on people's overall health as they aged. Individually, each was helpful. All three together were even better.

Control beliefs are beliefs about how much control a person feels they have over the events and outcomes in their life. Their relationship to health is not only about a state of mind: previous studies have shown that people who have a stronger sense of control are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as exercising and eating a healthier diet.

The researchers used information collected in the Midlife in the United States Survey (MIDUS) in 1995-1996 and again in 2004-2006. The sample included 3,626 adults, aged 32-84, the participants who had completely filled out all items of interest to the researchers.

Participants' overall health at both time points was compared to the strength of their control beliefs, their amount of social support and their frequency of physical exercise. All of these were self-reported by questionnaire.

Overall health was judged from responses to how difficult seven activities, such as lifting or carrying groceries and climbing several flights of stairs, were for the participants.

The questionnaire on control beliefs had each participant rate how strongly statements such as "I can do just about anything I really set my mind to" and "What happens in my life is often beyond my control" applied to their life.

Social support was estimated by responses to questions such as "How much do members of your family really care about you" and "How often do members of your family make too many demands on you."

Physical exercise questions were on the frequency of vigorous physical activity, such as running and lifting heavy objects.

Stronger control beliefs, greater social support and more frequent exercise at the first time point (in the 1990s) were each associated with better overall health, both at that point in time and eight to ten years later. And just as smoking cigarettes and poor diet combined are more injurious to health than either is alone, the three protective factors being studied had a greater protective effect when combined than each did separately. And the protective effect was strongest in the oldest participants.

On average, the overall health of all participants declined over the eight to ten year span being measured. But it declined much less in those who scored high on all three protective behaviors. When participants were divided into three age groups (youngest, middle and oldest), the health of the oldest participants who had high scores for all three protective behaviors was better than that of some of the middle aged participants.

This suggests that strong control beliefs, good social support and frequent exercise together can delay many of the health problems of old age by at least a decade.

An article detailing the study was published online by the open access journal PLoS ONE on October 11, 2010 and is freely available.

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