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Mental Health

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 to quantify

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 functioning.

 

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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 Alabama.

“These new results support the notion that health status is one of the most important predictors of happiness,” Angner said.

“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 online.

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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