Older People Most Unhappy with Health Problems That
Disrupt Life; Study Finds How to Measure
People with cancer are significantly happier than
those with urinary incontinence, but new research seeks ‘debility’ score
Nov. 13, 2012 – It is well established that how
unhappy a disease makes older people is determined by the degree to
which it disrupts their daily life. A new research project, however, has
now found a way to measure how much a disease disrupts daily function.
Previous research found that many serious medical
conditions, including cancer, have a surprisingly small impact on
happiness, while certain other conditions, such as urinary incontinence,
seem to have a lasting negative effect on happiness.
The new research claims to be the first study to
use a direct measure of the degree to which disease disrupts daily
Lead author Erik Angner, associate professor of
philosophy, economics and public policy at George Mason University,
worked with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University
of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Chicago and the University
of Massachusetts Medical School.
They developed a measure called the
“freedom-from-debility score” based on four health survey questions
explicitly designed to represent limitations in physical activities and
in usual role activities because of health problems.
The authors found that when controlling for
demographic and socioeconomic factors in addition to objective and
subjective health status, a one-point increase in the
freedom-from-debility score (on a scale from 0 to 100) was associated
with a three-percent reduction in the odds of reported unhappiness.
For example, a patient with prostate cancer, whose
daily functioning is not affected by his condition, might score higher
on a happiness scale than a patient with urinary incontinence, whose
condition imposes dramatic limitations in daily functioning.
Indeed, in an
earlier study, the
authors found that participants with a history of cancer reported being
significantly happier than those with urinary incontinence.
The study was conducted using a sample of 383 older
adults recruited from the practices of 39 primary care physicians in
“These new results support the notion that health
status is one of the most important predictors of happiness,” Angner
“A better understanding of the complex relationship
between health status and subjective well-being could have important
implications for the care and treatment of patients and could lead to
interventions that could dramatically improve patient quality of life.”
Angner has separate PhDs in economics and in
history and philosophy of science and has written extensively on the
philosophy and economics of health, happiness and well-being. He is the
author of A Course in Behavioral Economics.
The full study, published in the Journal of
Happiness Studies, is available
About George Mason University
George Mason University reports it is an
innovative, entrepreneurial institution with global distinction in a
range of academic fields. Located in Northern Virginia near Washington,
D.C., Mason provides students access to diverse cultural experiences and
the most sought-after internships and employers in the country.
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