Seniors who enjoy life more live longer, according to a study of ageing in England that followed thousands of people aged 50 and over for a decade. The study also reveals some key concerns about the UK’s ageing population, particularly surrounding social isolation.

The findings are from the most recent report, released this month, of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), led by University College London (UCL).

ELSA is an extensive project that is following over 10,000 people living in England as they age from 50 years onwards. Its aim is to understand the economic, social, psychological and health concerns of an ageing society. To do so, it is looking at interrelationships among diverse issues such as personal finances, social detachment and isolation, overall health and wellbeing.

The latest report covers “wave 1”, where subjects were visited in 2002/03, to “wave 5”, when they were visited in 2010/11. The work was led by UCL in partnership with the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the University of Manchester and NatCen Social Research.

Previous reports have shown close links between social engagement, healthy ageing, and longevity.

One of ELSA’s goals is to find out whether seniors’ psychological wellbeing earlier in life is linked to poor health later and early death.

The researchers found a marked difference between the people who enjoyed life the most and those who enjoyed it the least. The ones who were recorded in wave 1 as having a greater enjoyment in life were the ones most likely to still be alive in wave 5 of the study, some 9 to 10 years later.

The results show that nearly three times more people had died in the lower that the greater enjoyment group.

The researchers also found measures of psychological wellbeing from wave 2 (taken in 2004/05, before any impairments had developed) could predict which people would go on to develop coronary heart disease, report more ill-health, suffer disability and have a reduced walking speed when they were visited again in wave 5 (2010/11).

They were surprised to find these predictions were just as strong when they took into account other possible influencing factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, education, baseline health, and wealth.

Co-lead author Professor Andrew Steptoe, of UCL’s Epidemiology and Public Health department, says in a statement:

“Over a nine year period about 20% of people will pass away. What we found is that of those people in the highest third of enjoyment levels, 9.9% died. Of people in the lowest third of enjoyment, 28.8% died. This was the case even when factors such as age were taken into account – we still find this protective effect of enjoyment.”

Other key findings from the most recent ELSA report surround social isolation. They reveal that one in six persons aged 50 and over living in England is socially isolated.

The most socially isolated over 50s are the least wealthy: the wealthier ones are half as likely to become socially isolated as the least wealthy.

Socially isolated people have fewer hobbies where they mix with other people, they are unlikely to be active in “civic or cultural engagement” (such as doing volunteer work, or going to the theatre or cinema), and they have limited social networks.

Individuals who have never married or who are divorced, separated or widowed are more likely to be socially detached than those living with a partner.

Men are less likely to maintain contact with friends and family than women, as are those who live alone and in rural areas.

Yet men are more likely to continue to pursue leisure activities than women, whereas women are more likely to stay connected to social networks.

Mobility problems appears to be an important reason people stop pursuing leisure activities and enjoying cultural pursuits, as is losing access to transport.

The authors suggest public health interventions should concentrate more on the less wealthy, less healthy older people. And providing things like more access to public transport for the over 50s would have the greatest effect in reducing social isolation.

When the researchers examined pensions and wealth, they found rather than retiring abruptly from work, a significant proportion of people are opting to retire gradually, for example, moving from full-time to part-time working.

Among those aged 60 to 64, a third of women and nearly half of men who receive a private pension are still working, but are likely to be doing fewer hours per week than same-age counterparts who have opted not to draw their private pensions yet.

Of those people who retired over the 9 to 10 years of the study, the average family net income after retirement was 72% of what it was before retirement. The people whose income fell the most when they retired (a drop of 40%) were the ones with the largest pre-retirement income.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD