This shows an older man.
This new insight emphasizes the importance of considering heterogeneities in public health research to understand who benefits from life satisfaction and who does not. Credit: Neuroscience News

Not All Older Adults Reap Cognitive Benefits of Life Satisfaction

Summary: A new study delves into the link between life satisfaction and cognitive functioning in older adults. Surprisingly, while many studies advocate life satisfaction as a cognitive booster, this study suggests that it doesn’t benefit everyone.

High life satisfaction did enhance cognitive functioning in most individuals, but it fell short for those with low socioeconomic status, in poor health, or facing psychological challenges. This granular analysis unveils the nuanced relationship between contentment and cognitive health.

Key Facts:

  1. Life satisfaction has varying effects on cognitive functioning based on socio-economic, health, and psychological conditions.
  2. Only half the older adults surveyed benefited cognitively from high life satisfaction.
  3. The concept of “response shift” suggests people might adjust their quality-of-life standards in challenging situations, which may influence reported life satisfaction and its health effects.

Source: Boston University

Numerous studies have shown that leading a fulfilling and satisfying life may improve cognitive function by encouraging health-protective behaviors such as physical activity and reduced stress. Many of these studies assess this relationship from a population level, rather than among individuals.

But a closer look within the general population suggests that life satisfaction may not have a positive effect on all people, according to a new study led by Boston University School of Public Health researchers.

Published in the journal SSM – Mental Health, the study examined psychological well-being among older individuals in the United States and United Kingdom. High life satisfaction was associated with increased cognitive functioning among most individuals, but it was less beneficial for people of low socioeconomic status, in poor health, or experiencing adverse psychological conditions.

The study is the first to examine the effects of psychological well-being on cognitive functioning among older adults. It is important to note that the researchers observed no association of average cognitive effects from psychological well-being at a population level, so without this more granular analysis, the potentially adverse effects of life satisfaction would have been overlooked.

“It was impressive to observe how a relationship with no associations on population average showed underlying differences based on sociodemographic factors, physical health, and psychosocial elements,” says study lead author Toshiaki Komura, a master of public health student at BUSPH.

This new insight emphasizes the importance of considering heterogeneities in public health research to understand who benefits from life satisfaction and who does not. 

“Our results indicate that the health benefit of experiencing high life satisfaction may be smaller among socially marginalized groups, so further research is needed to ensure potential interventions have equitable health impacts,” says study senior author Dr. Koichiro Shiba, assistant professor of epidemiology at BUSPH.

For the study, the team used a novel machine-learning method to analyze nationally representative survey data on life satisfaction and cognitive functioning among more than 15,000 adults ages 50 and older in the US and UK, for four-year periods between 2010 and 2016.  

The health-promoting effect of life satisfaction in older adults was only evident among participants with higher SES, fewer pre-existing health problems, and better psychological functioning, which was about half of the survey participants.

The researchers surmise that the physical, mental, or socioeconomic challenges that low-SES individuals or adults in poorer health experience may have outweighed any possible cognitive benefits from life satisfaction. For example, life satisfaction could boost cognitive functioning by promoting physical activity, but exercise is not achievable if an individual is not in basic good health or does not have access to resources to exercise, such as residential green space or a gym.

This counterintuitive finding of the adverse effects of life satisfaction may also be explained by a concept called “response shift,” which involves changing internal standards, values and the conceptualization of quality of life.

“Response shift is the adjustment of one’s internal view of their quality of life when facing challenging circumstances in which their health status is severely deteriorated,” Komura explains. “In such situations, their standard of quality of life may shift to maintain a favorable psychological environment.”

According to this theory, individuals with disadvantaged socioeconomic, health, and psychosocial conditions might have reported life satisfaction that had been “adjusted” to their circumstances. “Our findings suggest such adjusted subjective feelings might have limited health-promoting effects on cognitive functioning,” he says.

At BUSPH, the study was coauthored by Ruija Chen, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology, and Ryan Andrews, research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology. The study was also coauthored by Richard Gowden, psychology research associate for the the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

About this aging and cognition research news

Author: Jillian McKoy
Source: Boston University
Contact: Jillian McKoy – Boston University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Estimating the heterogeneous effect of life satisfaction on cognitive functioning among older adults: Evidence of US and UK national surveys” by Toshiaki Komura et al. SSM – Mental Health


Estimating the heterogeneous effect of life satisfaction on cognitive functioning among older adults: Evidence of US and UK national surveys


The emerging field of positive psychology suggests higher life satisfaction, a form of psychological well-being, may improve cognitive functioning. Although evidence exists for population-average associations between psychological well-being and better cognitive function, little is known about how the relationship varies across individuals.


We analyzed a national sample of US and UK adults aged ≥50 from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) (n = 10,650) and the English Longitudinal Survey of Aging (ELSA) (n = 5514). We assessed life satisfaction at baseline using the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Cognitive functioning was assessed using a modified version of the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status score after 4-year follow-up. We estimated the population-average association between life satisfaction and cognitive functioning in each sample via doubly-robust targeted maximum likelihood estimation with SuperLearning. To assess effect heterogeneity, we estimated conditional average effects via a causal forest algorithm.


We did not find reliable evidence of a population-average association between life satisfaction and higher cognitive functioning in HRS (HRS: β = -0.12; 95%CI: -0.30, 0.06) and ELSA (ELSA: β = 0.39; 95%CI: -0.00, 0.79). Our machine-learning-based approach for estimating effect heterogeneity discovered the effect of life satisfaction on cognitive function can substantially vary across individuals. Life satisfaction appeared less beneficial, or even detrimental, among individuals with lower socioeconomic status, poor health status, and more negative psychological conditions, both in the US and UK samples.


Further research is needed to uncover mechanisms underlying the heterogeneous effects of life satisfaction on cognitive function, as it may have unintended adverse consequences among some subgroups.

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