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BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

Happy people have lower death rate, study finds

October 31, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • In a study of older people in England, happy people were less likely to die within five years than unhappy people -- even when factors like previous health, socioeconomics and depression were taken into account.
In a study of older people in England, happy people were less likely to die… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

Yet another study suggests that happiness is good for your health.  

Epidemiologists at University College, London, reported their results Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

Andrew Steptoe and Jane Wardle examined data collected in a single day by the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, a large survey in England. A subset of 3,853 people, ages 52 to 79, were asked to record the extent to which they felt happy, excited, content, worried, anxious and fearful on a 1 to 4 scale at four times during the day: upon waking, 30 minutes after waking, at 7 p.m. and again upon going to bed.  

Their measurements of happiness, excitement and contentment combined to create a score for positive affect, or good mood.  Worry, anxiety and fear ratings were combined to measure negative affect, or bad mood.

Once the researchers had their positive and negative affect scores, they divided the study subjects into three groups based on their positive affect ratings -- high, medium and low -- and followed up with the members of each group five years later to see who had died.  

In the high group, 3.6% of subjects had died; in the medium group, 4.6%; and in the low group, 7.3%.  

When the researchers controlled for socioeconomic factors, initial health, depression and other health indicators, the people with high positive affect still had a lower mortality rate than those who were less happy.  The trend also persisted when the team removed data from subjects who died in the first six months after the survey.  The authors wrote that this indicated that "effects are unlikely to be caused by seriously ill people experiencing low PA before death."

Negative affect did not have the same significant effect on death rates, they wrote.

It's not news that happy people are healthier -- the PNAS study cited a number of studies that have already suggested as much.  What made this study different, Steptoe and Wardle wrote, was that the subjects were reporting their moods in real time, and not recollecting them later on.  

These ratings "provide more accurate indications of affective state," they wrote. "The present findings provide further reason to target the positive well-being of older people."

Click here to read the study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

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