As people age, they experience a natural decrease in functional abilities. This decline has been linked to increased depression in many adults, mostly due to loss of independence or inability to perform activities. However, a new study suggests that adults who disengage from the goals that become unattainable due to decreased functionality actually experience fewer depressive symptoms than people who continue to pursue unattainable goals. Erin Dunne of Concordia University and lead author of the study, said, “These beneficial effects are likely to occur because goal disengagement can reduce negative mood and the associated health problems by protecting individuals from the experience of repeated failure.” She added that these same adults can sustain the decreased levels of depression by pursuing new, more realistic goals. “Goal reengagement capacities are thought to provide new meaningful goals and have been associated with purpose in life and positive affect,” she said.
To test her theory, Dunne and her colleagues examined the functional abilities, depressive symptoms and goal engagement behaviors of over 100 older adults over the course of six years. They found that as the adults’ functional abilities decreased, their depressive symptoms increased, but only in the adults who could not abandon unrealistic goals. “In particular, six-year increases in depressive symptoms appeared among participants who had poor goal disengagement capacities and experienced heightened levels of functional disability at two-year, four-year, and six-year follow-up, independent of baseline levels,” said the team. “This pattern of results implies that increases in functional disability contributed to subsequently elevated levels of depressive symptoms if individuals were not able to disengage from unattainable goals.” But for those adults who could disengage and set new, more attainable goals, the depressive symptoms decreased. The team hopes these findings will help with treatment options for these individuals. “In particular, we suggest that clinical interventions could target the withdrawal of goal commitment during challenging life circumstances, which could subsequently facilitate an improvement of older adults’ quality of life,” said the researchers.
Dunne, E., Wrosch, C., & Miller, G. E. (2011, May 23). Goal Disengagement, Functional Disability, and Depressive Symptoms in Old Age. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024019
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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