Researchers identify secrets to happiness,
depression among oldest of old
AMES, Iowa, April 2010 -- Researchers from Iowa State
University's gerontology program have helped
identify what predicts happiness and long
life in centenarians, as well as what causes
depression in 80-somethings and above.
In a study of 158 Georgia centenarians, the researchers
found that past satisfaction with life --
even if it's simply recalling isolated
career accomplishments -- is the key to
happiness in our oldest years.
"The past is the best predictor of the future, so you're
not going to turn your life around at 85 or
90," said Peter Martin, director of Iowa
State's gerontology program and a professor
of human development and family studies (HDFS),
who collaborated on both studies.
"But it's also good to know that past accomplishments
and the happiness that you had -- looking
back at your past -- carries you through
these very last years."
For the depression study, researchers added 78
octogenarians (people 80 or older) to the
happiness centenarian sample. They found
that diminished cognitive problem-solving
ability was a significant predictor of
depressive symptoms in octogenarians, while
living in a nursing home and greater
neurotic tendencies increased depression
Both studies were published online in the Jan. 26 issue of
the journalGerontology. Jennifer
Margrett, an assistant professor of HDFS,
was the lead author on the depression study.
Alex Bishop, an assistant professor of human
development and family studies at Oklahoma
State University (who was a doctoral student
at Iowa State), was lead author of the
In that study, researchers analyzed the subjects' responses
to a series of questions that assessed their
happiness, perceived health, social
provisions, economic security and life
While there was no indication that resources affect
happiness, past life satisfaction -- even
individual achievements -- was found to have
a direct association.
Because of their results, the researchers urge caregivers
of the elderly to implement programs --
including reminiscence therapy and
structured life review sessions -- to foster
feelings of happiness among very old
"You can be not overly satisfied with your overall current
capacity and physical well-being, but you
can still be a very happy person because
there's a lot you can contribute just by
sharing some of the things that nobody knew
because it was 80 or 90 years ago," said
Martin, who is also in the second year of a
three-year study of Iowa centenarians.
In the second other study, researchers measured depressive
symptoms, demographics and functional
indicators, cognition and personality in the
They then compared the ability of cognition, personality,
and demographic and functional indicators in
explaining depressive symptoms in the
octogenarians and centenarians respectively.
They were surprised to learn that overall cognition was not
a stronger predictor of depressive symptoms
at either age. Rather, it was the loss of
the subject's control -- problem-solving in
the octogenarians, and choosing where they
lived in the centenarians -- that tended to
"In the case of the octogenarians, it's not so much your
intellectual ability as it is the ability to
come up with a solution to a particular task
that you used to be able to solve in your
60s and 70s," Martin said.
"And so for the first time, you realize that there may be
decline in being able to manage tasks.
"And at 100, it's not so much the surrounding of the
nursing home that gets you depressed," he
added. "But in a nursing home, two things
have changed. First, there's a sign that you
cannot take care of yourself anymore. And
then there's the sign that you know you only
have limited time to live, which is
different for an 80-year-old."
The research also confirmed that worry and anxiety
contribute to depression in centenarians.
And one of the things they're worried about, according to
Martin, is the direction the country is
headed and the world they're leaving for
their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Martin says these studies have practical applications for
elderly care providers.
"When we have professionals who work with elderly in
nursing homes, we pay so much attention to
the helping condition -- make sure they eat,
make sure they have their hygiene taken care
of, and so forth -- but you also have to
work on the mood aspect of it," Martin said.
"And I know people who work in nursing homes
have difficult jobs, but just a brief
conversation with a very old person can
lighten up their entire day."
The research team also published two related papers in the
Jan. 26 issue ofGerontology. One
confirms the importance of family history on
present-day functioning among centenarians
and octogenarians, while the other analyzed
the influences on their economic dependency.