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Can a boost in self-esteem improve seniors’ health?

New Concordia research shows that higher self-confidence can help mitigate the threat of conditions associated with older adulthood
March 12, 2014
By Suzanne Bowness

The importance of boosting self-esteem is normally associated with the trials and tribulations of adolescence. But new research from Concordia shows that it is crucial for older adults to maintain and improve upon those confidence levels as they enter their twilight years.

Higher self-esteem, researchers have found, can help protect against potential health threats linked to the transition into older adulthood.

A new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that a boost in self-esteem can provide a buffer against conditions that threaten seniors. The study was led by psychology researchers Sarah Liu and Carsten Wrosch from Concordia’s Centre for Research in Human Development.

While previous research has focused on self-esteem levels, Liu and Wrosch examined changes to self-esteem within individuals over time. They found that if a person’s self-esteem decreased, the stress hormone cortisol increased — and vice versa. This association was particularly strong among subjects with a history of stress or depression.

The research team measured cortisol levels, self-esteem, stress and symptoms of depression in 147 adults aged 60 and over every 24 months over four years. Self-esteem was measured through standard questions, such as whether the participant felt worthless. The study also took into account personal and health factors including economic status, marital status and mortality risk.

The study’s results showed that maintaining or even improving self-esteem could help prevent health problems.

“Because self-esteem is associated with psychological well-being and physical health, raising self-esteem would be an ideal way to help prevent health problems later in life,” says Liu.

While encouraging an older adult to make more friends or simply enhance their self-worth is easier said than done, she says, from a practical standpoint such steps do have an impact on self-esteem.

“Improving self-esteem provides real health benefits in seniors,” says Liu. “The ultimate solution may be to prevent self-esteem from declining.”

While this study looked at cortisol levels, Liu says future research could examine immune function to further illuminate how increases in self-esteem can contribute to patterns of healthy aging.

Partners in research: This study was co-authored by Jens Pruessner (McGill University) and Gregory Miller (Northwestern University). The research was funded in part by grants from Canadian Institutes of Health Research awarded to Carsten Wrosch.

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