A new study finds that having a four-year college degree and a lower level of stress are strongly associated with psychological resilience in American women age 80 or older.
The researchers analyzed data from Women’s Health Initiative To identify factors associated with higher subjective resilience — the ability to weather storms and bounce back from setbacks — among nearly 30,000 women with an average age of 84.
The results showed that other characteristics associated with resilience included stronger social support, higher rated health, and a lower risk of depression compared to levels among women who reported poorer resilience.
The findings indicate interventions that health practitioners can adopt to improve the quality of life for older women in their care, said the lead author. Jessica Kruk SchoenAssistant Professor at Health sciences In the College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Ohio State University.
“Yes, people are living longer, and that’s great in terms of chronological lifespan, but there is a question: How are they doing?” Crook Schoen said. “I think we often put older people away in our minds and assume they live in institutional settings, but 90% of them are getting old – so what are some ways we can connect and support older women who have so much life involved and who make so many contributions to our society ?
The study was recently published in Gerontology Journals: Series B.
The sample of 29,347 women was 91.4% White, 3.7% Black, 1.9% Hispanic and 1.7% Asian. The researchers set out to determine Neihow’s race, ethnicity, and neighborhood socioeconomic status that affected resilience in women age 80 and older, but found that many of the factors most associated with a high level of resilience did not differ based on women’s race or ethnicity.
The analysis found a difference in resilience scores based on neighborhood socioeconomic status, with lower neighborhood socioeconomic status associated with lower resilience scores. Almost half of the participants lived in an area of moderate socioeconomic status.
Resilience was measured based on participants’ level of agreement or disagreement with three statements: “I tend to recover quickly after difficult times,” “It doesn’t take long to recover from a stressful event,” and “I find it hard to make through stressful events.”
The analysis looked for associations between resilience scores and several variables that included demographic data, depression and stress, independent participation in activities of daily living, spirituality, social support, significant life events, major diseases, and assessment of lifestyle and diet.
The average overall flexibility score was 3.96 out of 5. Although there are correlations between the level of flexibility and several variables, there are clear highlights, Kroc-Schoen said.
Higher education and lower perceived stress were consistently associated with higher resilience among women across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic groups. On the other end of the spectrum, a significantly increased likelihood of depression was associated with lower resilience in most older women.
Higher social support also rose to the top of the factors closely associated with higher resilience for most women.
“It’s about having people around you, but it’s not just about the number — it involved a measure of the quality of the relationships,” Kroc-Schoen said.
Higher self-ratings of health and lower physical symptoms were also major factors associated with higher resilience.
The analysis collected data simultaneously, Kroc-Schoen notes, so there’s a chicken-or-egg situation in the game: Do these older women feel stressed, depressed, or burdened by illnesses as a function of their resilience, or does a decrease in stress, depression, and physical pain contribute to enhanced feelings of resilience?
A few factors consistently associated with higher resilience were found only among women living in moderate neighborhood socioeconomic conditions. These included living alone and spirituality.
One characteristic that does not show anything to do with resilience is exposure to major life events, such as the death of loved ones, major accidents or disasters, physical and verbal abuse, or job loss.
“We thought there would be something: Either too many experiences would be related to poor resilience, or women who had been hurt by life would say, ‘I’m still here, I’m still kicking it,'” Kroc-Schoen said. This is among the younger population – is ‘time heals all wounds’ activated here?
She also said that resilience is not something we have or don’t have, but it is a process associated with adaptation, and it fluctuates.
Kroc-Schoen said that by understanding what older women say about their resilience, experts can develop interventions for this population designed to promote social support, manage stress, reduce symptoms of depression, and encourage physical activity.
“As we age, all these deficits accumulate, but at the same time you have a wealth of experience,” she said. “Older adults are doing well, but this data shows us the main factors that support psychological resilience among this group. Let’s see if we can make improvements.”
The Women’s Health Initiative is funded by National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Ohio State study co-authors included Michelle Naughton, Ashley Felix, Mangda Yu, Eric McLaughlin, Timea Nolan, and Rebecca Jackson (now deceased).