What are realistic expectations for people in their sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond? What are the consequences if older people set impossible goals or impractical hopes for themselves?
Carsten Wrosch, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Psychology and member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, has been awarded a major grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to examine those kinds of issues. The $757,722 grant will enable Wrosch and the interdisciplinary research team he leads to continue its Montreal Aging and Health Study (MHAS).
Wrosch and his team of lifespan, health, personality, psychiatry and kinesiology researchers from across North America have been following 215 people over the age of 65 since 2004.The researchers are looking at how the elderly cope with common age-related challenges, such as health problems, shrinking social networks, and regrets about their life choices.
CIHR has supported the project since its inception. The new funding will enable Wrosch’s team to continue to track many of the current participants, add new people to the study, and test hypotheses about differences among people in their sixties, seventies and over 80.
The fastest growing segment of today’s elderly population consists of adults beyond the age of 80 with an unprecedented number of people living far longer than in previous decades. This portion of the community has particular needs and concerns that require further study to be fully understood and addressed, according to Wrosch.
His research team has already identified a series of common challenges faced by senior citizens, including chronic physical health problems, decreased physical fitness, a lack of social support, and loneliness.
These can lead to psychological distress, and without appropriate coping strategies, that distress may endure and disrupt healthy physical activity or sleep.
It can also overactivate the stress-responsive hormone cortisol which, in turn, may lead to chronic inflammation – the root cause of many illnesses.
“Psychological distress can elevate older adults’ risk of entering a downward spiral towards progressively declining physical health,” Wrosch says.
The new research will look for solutions. The research team is evaluating the effectiveness of self-regulating behaviours, such as goal-setting as well as the adjustment of goals, to prevent or stop a downward spiral and improve older people’s lives.
Learning not only to set goals but to determine which goals must be adjusted or abandoned may be highly effective coping mechanisms. They appear to be particularly important for people over 80, who are more likely to face some insurmountable obstacles. For this group, the practice of letting go of goals that cannot be achieved, and setting new, more achievable ones, may be an important determinant of good health.
MAHS will enhance the understanding of the mind and body connection by showing how changes in the mental and emotional state of the study’s participants can have a measureable effect on their physical health. It will also lead to better knowledge of the psychological and biological pathways to successful and healthy aging.
The findings could help to design programs for older adults to learn effective coping and goal-setting strategies. These would not only help the elderly to lead healthier lives, but could significantly reduce public health care costs.
• Concordia University’s Department of Psychology
• Centre for Research in Human Development
• Canadian Institutes of Health Research