Subjective Reports of Health Change As We Age

Subjective health evaluations can be very insightful and valuable. Many doctors, physical and psychological, rely heavily on people’s own assessments of their conditions. They ask clients how they are feeling and where they are experiencing pain in order to gain insight into the underlying problem that may be occurring. Objective health perspectives, those given by someone other than the clients themselves, are also valuable for making accurate clinical diagnoses. Objective health and subjective health are two necessary measures for identifying ailments. However, subjective health varies significantly based on a number of factors. Age, gender, mental health, and illness history can all influence subjective health. In young and middle adulthood, subjective and objective health assessments tend to follow similar paths. But as people age, those paths veer apart.

To better understand how subjective health changes from younger to older adulthood, Julia K. Wolff of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the German Center of Gerontology in Berlin, Germany recently led a study evaluating the trajectories of subjective health in a sample of 103 adults over the age of 65 and 101 adults ranging in age from 20 to 31. “Investigating such differences is important for understanding subjective health in both age groups, but also for interpreting potential age-differential relationships to other variables,” said Wolff. The participants were instructed to report their health and any physical symptoms they experienced for a period of100 days. Wolff analyzed the data and found significant differences in older adults’ and younger adults’ reporting of subjective health.

Specifically, the younger adults appeared to report higher levels of exhaustion while the older adults reported more cardiovascular impairment. This was a unique finding considering that the levels of objective health did not reflect this. Surprisingly, even though the older adults had more physical illnesses, they did not report exhaustion. This finding could be due to the higher levels of responsibility, activity, and stress experienced by younger adults. Another interesting difference was the stability in subjective health in the older participants. While younger participants reported more symptom variation day to day, the older adults’ symptoms remained relatively stable throughout the study period. This also could be the result of a more sedentary and stable lifestyle. Regardless, the findings of this study emphasize the importance of considering every factor related to subjective health when evaluating the overall physical and psychological condition of a client.

Wolff, J. K., Brose, A., Lövdén, M., Tesch-Römer, C., Lindenberger, U., Schmiedek, F. (2012). Health is health is health? Age differences in intraindividual variability and in within-person versus between-person factor structures of self-reported health complaints. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029125

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  • Norma

    July 27th, 2012 at 3:25 PM

    I have worked as an RN for years now, and I have never found this to be true! Older patients tend, in the practice where I ork, to have even more complaints than any other patients that we see.

    Maybe I just work with a needy population but they are always hurting or aching or are tired. . . so much so that my doctors are now actively seeking younger patients to fill the rolls!

  • Ted

    July 27th, 2012 at 6:18 PM

    It’s not because the younger adults are more stressed, they might perceive it that way, but it’s not true. the truth is that most young people these days are nothing but a bunch of whiners looking for new and improved ways to garner sympathy from others.

  • Brad p

    July 28th, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    This could be worrisome in that it isn’t that they elderly feel better than we thought, but like with my grandmother she was always so afraid of saying that something hurt or that she didn’t feel too good because I think that in her mind she thought that meant that someone would go and put her in a nursing home. She was so adamant about not wanting to be anywhere other than her house that she was pretty devoted to being stoic and never telling us or her doctors that she could be feeling bad unless it was something dire.

  • Manning

    July 29th, 2012 at 4:09 AM

    Are the subjective reports given just as much weight as a tool for assessment that would be more objective? I am not sure that it should be.

  • EMMA

    July 31st, 2012 at 12:09 AM

    The younger lot may have more expectations of their own energy levels and are hence reporting exhaustion more than the older lot.. and the older lot,as expected,has reported more cardiovascular what we this tells us, I believe, is that people have different ecpectations of themselves at different ages with regard to health.. and hence their perception of health problems changes with age too.

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