Wellbeing increases in late 60s, finds longest-running cohort survey

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Experts at the Medical Research Council (MRC) say there is reason to celebrate getting older – as the UK’s longest-running cohort survey reveals a rise in wellbeing throughout the seventh decade of life.

The National Survey for Health and Development (NSHD) - part of an initiative to cut infant mortality launched shortly after the end of WWII - began in March 1946 with the recruitment of more than 5,000 newborn babies and is the longest-running cohort study of its kind in the UK.

Described by the MRC as “some of the most closely medically observed people in the world”, the participants have been tracked for the past 70 years, undergoing physical and mental development checks during childhood. Later, data relating to educational attainment and social circumstances was collected, as well as other health monitoring information.

More recently, members were asked to rank aspects of their mental health using a recognised wellbeing scale, providing indicators as to how relaxed they were, as well as feelings relating to cheerfulness, confidence, optimism and how useful they felt to those around them.

Study members were asked to complete the scale again at age 69, and, compared to answers given just five years earlier, the results revealed an increase across all 14 aspects, despite many members reporting one or more chronic health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or arthritis.

More free time?

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The findings support those published separately by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) earlier this month. The ONS surveyed 300,000 people, and those aged between 65-79 were found to be the happiest adults. Researchers suggested a reduced requirement to balance work and family caring commitments, coupled with more free time to spend on desired activities, as a possible cause.

Researchers at the MRC’s Lifelong Health and Ageing (LHA) at University College London also hope to identify the circumstances that may contribute to the increase in wellbeing.

1 in 5 experienced “substantial” increase

Dr Mai Stafford, Programme Leader at the MRC LHA, says: “What we’ve found is that, on average, levels of wellbeing increased during people’s sixties. We found that 1 in 5 experienced a substantial increase in wellbeing in later life, although we also found a smaller group who experienced a substantial decline.

Dr Stafford adds: “The benefit of using a cohort study like NSHD is that we can look at how individuals change over time. We hope this will allow us to pinpoint which common experiences may be linked to an improvement in wellbeing in later life.”

Understanding disease risk factors

The MRC says the NSHD has made “a major contribution to healthcare, education and policy for more than 50 years”, providing information relating to how we can work to maintain physical and cognitive function as well as what risk factors play a part in the development of diseases such as dementia, cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

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Professor Diana Kuh, who leads the MRC NSHD at the MRC LHA, says: “NSHD study members have been helping us for seven decades of their lives and we are grateful for their time and commitment to the study. Their contribution to our knowledge about human development and ageing is enormously valuable for science and policy.”

Birthday party

More than 3,000 study members will reach age 70 this month, and the MRC will be hosting birthday parties for members at venues in London and Manchester later this week. Around 800 people are expected to attend, some will even be bringing along a parent who signed them up for the study 70 years ago.


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