June 14, 2016

Redefining health and well-being in older adults

At a Glance

  • Researchers developed a novel model to help predict the risk of incapacity and death in older adults.
  • The findings have implications for assessing and managing the quality of life and health of older adults.
Group of older adults socializing outdoors. Mental, physical, and social factors all affect the health of older adults.Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Thinkstock

Health is more than just the absence of disease. Health also includes physical, psychological, and social well-being. Many traditional models of health, however, focus mostly on conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

A team led by Dr. Martha McClintock at the University of Chicago set out to classify the health of older adults by using a more comprehensive approach. The research was supported in part by NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA). Results were published on May 31, 2016, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers interviewed a sample of more than 3,000 American adults, ages 57 to 85. The sample was designed to represent all older adults nationwide who live at home, regardless of their health status. The team administered questionnaires that covered 54 diverse health variables. Participants were contacted again after 5 years and either re-interviewed or noted as unable to participate due to incapacity or death.

A traditional “medical model” used 19 of the variables. These addressed medical issues and organ function, including heart disease, cancer, lung disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, and liver disease. A “comprehensive model” included 35 measures covering other aspects of health and well-being. These included health behaviors (such as sleeping, drinking, and smoking); psychological health (such as stress, depression, loneliness, and self-esteem); sensory function (such as taste, vision, and hearing); and frailty (such as gait speed, bone fracture, anemia, and urinary incontinence).

The researchers found that about half of the people classified as healthy based on the medical model had vulnerabilities revealed by the comprehensive model that affected the chances that they would die or become incapacitated within 5 years. Conversely, some people with chronic diseases had many strengths that reclassified them as healthy in the comprehensive model. For example, older adults who were obese but otherwise physically and mentally healthy had the lowest risk of dying or becoming incapacitated.

Analysis of the full comprehensive model of health and well-being revealed several unique variables that predicted mortality and incapacity. Poor mental health, poor sensory function and social engagement, and having a broken bone any time after age 45 were all strong markers for future health problems. Conversely, greater mobility predicted well-being.

“The new comprehensive model of health identifies constellations of health completely hidden by the medical model and reclassifies about half of the people seen as healthy as having significant vulnerabilities that affect the chances that they may die or become incapacitated within 5 years,” McClintock says.

—by Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

Related Links

Reference: Empirical redefinition of comprehensive health and well-being in the older adults of the United States. McClintock MK, Dale W, Laumann EO, Waite L. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 May 31;113(22):E3071-80. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1514968113. Epub 2016 May 16. PMID: 27185911.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute on Aging and the University of Chicago.