Research has found that couples can be interdependent, resulting in one spouse’s well-being affecting the other’s and vice versa. A study explored the role that older couples’ perceptions of aging play in influencing each other’s mental and physical health.
The study used data from 1,823 older couples who participated in the Health and Retirement Study at three timepoints over eight years. Average ages for wives and husbands were 67 and 70 respectively, and couples had been married for an average of 38 years. Every four years, participants completed a survey measuring their self-perceptions of aging, self-rated health, and number of depressive symptoms.
They found that individuals who reported more positive self-perceptions of aging reported better health and lower depression eight years later. The relationship between one’s own health and one’s partner’s self-perceptions of aging was slightly more complicated, however. It turned out that partners indirectly influenced each other’s health by influencing one another’s self-perceptions of aging. For example, when wives reported more positive self-perceptions of aging, their husbands reported more positive self-perceptions of aging four years later. The husbands’ positive perceptions of aging were in turn related to their own better health and lower depression over the next four years. The reverse pattern was also observed for husbands’ perceptions of aging influencing their wives’ perceptions of aging.
Couples spend a significant amount of time together, so it may be no surprise that they can influence each other’s views. However, this in turn influences a spouse’s mental and physical health, which should be an important takeaway for older couples: contributing to a partner’s health starts with having a more positive personal outlook. The use of multiple timepoints in this study, and controlling for baseline health, supports the direction of findings, rather than the reverse that being healthier leads to more positive perceptions of aging. Future research may investigate how programming that focuses on perceptions of aging can be more effective by addressing the couple in addition to the individual.
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Cohn-Schwartz E, Segel-Karpas D, and Ayalon L. Longitudinal dyadic effects of aging self-perceptions on health. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 2021; 76(5), 900-909.