Well-being at the end of life often declines steeply, with significant differences among individuals that are poorly understood, say researchers who show that staying active socially - despite health challenges - appears to lessen and delay the onset of late-life decline.
The study - published in Psychology and Aging - was led by Dr. Denis Gerstorf, of Humboldt University in Berlin. His colleagues include members of Arizona State University and other research centers in the US and Germany. Dr. Gerstorf notes:
"Our results indicate that living a socially active life and prioritizing social goals are associated with higher late-life satisfaction and less severe declines toward the end of life."
The team analyzed data obtained 2-4 years before death, from over 2,900 people who took part in the nationwide German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) Study. The participants (48% female) were of an average age of 74 when they died.
The SOEP study data includes self-rated assessments of well-being, social activity, social goals and family goals during the last few years of the participants' lives.
The researchers analyzed the responses - a score between 0 and 10 - to questions asking the participants how satisfied they were with their lives overall (all things considered), how much they participated in social activity, how important social activity was to them, and how much they valued their marriage or their relationships with their children.
The analysis shows that being socially active and having social goals were linked to higher well-being or life-satisfaction late in life, but having family goals was not.
The link was independent of other factors captured by the SOEP study that might play a role - such as age at death, gender, education and health status (such as disability and hospital admissions).
Social activity 'generally requires more physical and mental effort'
The authors note with interest that while a low score on social activity and lack of social goals were independently linked with lower life-satisfaction, when combined, it is as though they magnify each other's effect.
Speculating on their findings, Dr. Gerstorf suggests having social goals may make one feel competent and increase sense of belonging and concern for the next generation.
Being socially active may contribute to well-being in one's last years because it generally requires more physical and mental effort, explains coauthor Gert Wagner, from the German Institute for Economic Research:
"A socially engaged lifestyle often involves cognitive stimulation and physical activity, which in turn may protect against the neurological and physical factors underlying cognitive decline."
The researchers suggest the reason that having family goals appears not to contribute to well-being late in life could be because of the complex nature of family relationships.
For example, witnessing the decline of a loved partner may make oneself more vulnerable to decline.
There could also be varying effects from relationships with grown up children, ranging from satisfaction to disappointment, and Dr. Gerstorf concludes:
"Family life is often a mixed bag and represents not only a source of joy, but also of worry and tensions, stress and sorrow."
He and his colleagues suggest the relationship between well-being and engagement with family in the late stages of life is an area that needs more research.
Meanwhile, Medical News Today also learned, from another recently published study, that using a computer may reduce cognitive decline in later life.