Carsten Wrosch, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University and member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, was recently awarded a major grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), worth $757,722. Wrosch leads an interdisciplinary research team consisting of lifespan, personality, health, psychiatry and kinesiology researchers from across North America.
This grant will enable his team to continue its Montreal Aging and Health Study (MAHS), which has been supported by the CIHR since its inception. Since 2004, the study has followed 215 adults aged 65 and older to investigate how they cope with common age-related challenges, such as health problems, a shrinking social network or regrets about their life choices. With this new funding, Wrosch's team will be able to add new participants to the study, continue tracking many of its previous participants, and test its hypotheses about differences between senior citizens in their 60s and 70s and those over age 80.
As our population ages, the fastest growing segment among the elderly consists of adults beyond age 80; never before have we had so many people living to advanced old age. This section of our community has particular needs and concerns, which require further study in order to be fully understood and addressed.
Wrosch's research team has identified a series of common challenges faced by senior citizens, such as chronic physical health problems, decreased physical fitness, and loneliness or a lack of social support. These can create psychological distress, and without appropriate coping strategies, that distress may be maintained and disrupt healthy behaviours like adequate physical activity, sleep and the regulation of the "stress hormone" cortisol. This, in turn, can increase the likelihood of chronic inflammation in the body - the root cause of many illnesses. Wrosch explains that psychological distress can "elevate older adults' risk of entering a downward spiral towards progressively declining physical health."
The new research to be conducted by Wrosch and his team will study a possible solution to this problem. They believe that self-regulation behaviours, such as goal setting as well as selective persistence and goal adjustment, may have significant power to stop that dangerous cycle, and so improve the lives of the elderly.
Learning to set goals, and to determine which goals can be achieved and which must be abandoned, may provide a highly effective coping mechanism. This appears to be particularly important for adults over 80, who are more likely to face insurmountable obstacles. For this group, the practice of letting go of goals that cannot be achieved, and setting new, more achievable goals, may be an important determinant of good health.
This research will improve our understanding of the connection between mind and body by showing how changes in the mental and emotional state of the study's participants can have a measureable effect on their physical health. It will also lead to a better understanding of the psychological and biological pathways to successful and healthy aging. If the study's results are as expected, the evidence gathered could help design programs for older adults that teach effective coping and goal setting strategies to address common challenges. This would not only help the elderly lead healthier lives; it could also significantly reduce costs for public health services.