There’s a good reason for older adults to be conscientious and optimistic, a new study from England suggests.
Researchers found that men and women ages 52 and older who had higher scores on measures of five “life skills” — conscientiousness, control, determination (i.e., persistence), emotional stability and optimism — experience a broad range of health benefits and positive outcomes later in life, compared with older adults who had lower scores. This finding held true even after the researchers took into account people’s socioeconomic background, education and cognitive abilities.
These “life skills” include personal characteristics and capabilities thought to increase a person’s chance of success and well-being in life, according to the study, which was published online today (April 10) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The findings suggest that these attributes are relevant to many aspects of life, from economic prosperity and social relationships to health and biology, even at older ages, said the study’s lead author Andrew Steptoe, a professor of psychology and epidemiology at University College London.
Previous research has found that these five life skills are important to success in early life in areas such as educational achievement and work performance, but scientists didn’t know much about the roles these personality attributes may play in people’s health at older ages, Steptoe told Live Science.
Measuring life skills
In the study, the researchers evaluated data collected from about 8,100 people who were participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a long-term study of middle-age and older adults living in England that began in 2002. The average age of the participants at the study’s start was 67.
In 2010, the ELSA participants were given a questionnaire to evaluate the five life skills measured in this new study. For example, this questionnaire asked the participants to self-rate how determined they felt over the past month on a scale ranging from “not at all” to “very much.”
To gauge optimism, the participants were asked to rate how much they felt that “life is full of opportunities.” And to evaluate the participants’ sense of control over their lives, the researchers asked the participants to rate how much they felt in control over what happens to them at home. A personality test developed for people in middle age and older was used to assess conscientiousness and emotional stability.
In addition to measuring these five life skills, the researchers collected information from the participants in order to evaluate their physical and psychological health, economic resources, cognitive capacity and social well-being.
The findings showed that the participants who scored generally higher on the measures of these five skills also had better outcomes in various aspects of their health, Steptoe said. [Extending Life: 7 Ways to Live Past 100]
For example, only 3 percent of older adults who rated high in four or five of the life skills had symptoms of depression, compared with about 23 percent of those who had low life-skill scores (not scoring high on any life skills). Moreover, about 37 percent of older adults with low life-skill scores rated their health as fair or poor, compared with 6 percent of older adults with four or five life skills.
Higher scores on measures of life skills was also linked with more economic success, fewer chronic diseases, a faster walking speed and a lower prevalence of obesity, compared with older adults with low scores. Older adults with more life skills were also less lonely, had more close relationships and did more volunteer work, according to the findings.
Navigating life’s challenges
The researchers aren’t sure why having more life skills later in life appears to be linked with such a wide variety of health and social benefits.
One possible explanation is that “these skills help people to negotiate the challenges of life more effectively,” Steptoe told Live Science. For example, developing these attributes can help people take advantage of opportunities and stick to goals despite facing obstacles, he suggested.
Older adults with more life skills may be less likely to become discouraged when things go wrong, and they might persist with the belief that things will eventually improve, Steptoe speculated.
The findings also revealed that no single skill was more important than any other; rather, it was the accumulation of all five attributes that influenced people’s health and well-being later in life. [9 Healthy Habits You Can Do in 1 Minute (Or Less)]
This finding suggests that each life skill taps into a different aspect of a person’s makeup and that the combination of all five skills is especially powerful, Steptoe said.
Although all five attributes involved in the study have a genetic component, a person who didn’t inherit a tendency to be persistent or optimistic can still develop these characteristics, Steptoe noted. He said that people can learn or work on these skills, or change their attitudes toward them, in specific situations, such as increasing a person’s sense of control while at work.
“Developing life skills in early adulthood and middle age may put people in a good position when they move into older ages,” Steptoe said.