Quality of life for older Irish people increases with age and peaks at 68, new research has found.
Adults who have the highest levels of social integration, such as large interconnected social networks and positive friendships, reported the highest quality of life.
The Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing (Tilda), which tracked 8,000 adults aged 50 and above since 2010, found that quality of life does not necessarily decline in tandem with age.
Quality of life for those surveyed, in fact, rose steadily after 50 to a peak at 68 before gradually declining until age 80 – when it declines rapidly.
The study, carried out by scientists in Trinity College Dublin, also found that women were twice as likely to report positive supportive friendships compared with men, with 31 per cent reporting high-quality relationships versus 16 per cent of men.
Those living in rural areas were also best-placed to enjoy continuing high quality of life into old age due to superior social networks, the study indicated.
Rose-Anne Kenny, professor of medical gerontology at Trinity College Dublin and lead academic on the study, said that social engagement helps to curb unwanted deteriorations in quality of life.
“This report provides evidence for high rates of volunteering amongst the over 50s and the benefits that volunteering, social engagement, supportive friendships and membership of organisations have on physical and mental health and well being,” Prof Kenny said.
“These social interactions suppress unwanted inflammation which is part of the ageing process.”
Almost three-quarters of older adults surveyed said they participated in active and social leisure activities each week, while 52 per cent participated in organised groups such as sports groups, book clubs or charitable organisations.
Increases in chronic health conditions and disabilities did have a negative impact on quality of life, the study said. However, higher social integration and supportive friendships offset the effect of increasing disability on quality of life, especially in men.
In the research, chronic health conditions noted as cardiovascular disease, falls, fractures, and indicators of overall health such as smoking, drinking and exercise.
Problematic alcohol use was more prevalent in men – 15 per cent – than women – 9 per cent – while almost half of adults aged 50 and over walked less than the recommended 150 minutes per week.
The report also stated that poor housing conditions were also significant issues for community-dwelling adults aged 56 and over. The most prevalent housing problem was damp, mould or moisture.
Social cohesion, according to the report, also depended on location. Just over half of participants living in rural areas reporting high social cohesion compared with 18 per cent of participants living in Dublin city or county.
It recommended the promotion of volunteering for those over 75 and the modification of health behaviours such as smoking, alcohol consumption and physical activity.
“[Improved relationships] extends to connectedness and solidarity within neighbourhoods – underscoring the important role for public health of supportive neighbours and safe neighbourhoods,” Prof Kenny said.
Prof Kenny also said that smoking had declined for those aged 50-64 but physical activity had not improved and problematic drinking rates remained constant.
It was concerning that as more older people became frail, the number of overnight hospital admissions and the length of stays in hospital also increased, she said.
Although the research found that care provided by friends and family was rising, Prof Kenny called for policies targeted towards “enhanced social engagement and a reduction in loneliness and unwanted isolation” which, she said, should enhance health and quality of life.