Adapting to Functional Limitations

Study with SHARE data indicates that life satisfaction of older people returns to pre-onset levels after five years.

(July 2019) Can time heal wounds? In a new study, de Hond et al. pose this question, empirically assessing how the quality of life of older people who suffer from chronic diseases and functional limitations changes over time. The study aims to learn more about affected persons’ ability to adapt to these conditions. The authors found that respondents report a drop in both their self-reported health and their life satisfaction right after the onset of the chronic disease, but also that their life satisfaction shows that they adapt partially: the score returns to pre-onset levels after some time.

Measuring self-perceived health and quality of life over time

Measuring adaptation requires observing people who acquire functional limitations before and after they acquire these limitations. In their study, de Hond et al. analysed SHARE data from respondents aged 50 and over, collected through all five regular survey waves between 2004 and 2015, and focused on self-perceived health, overall life satisfaction and functional limitations in activities of daily living.

Adaptation and quality of life

As expected, respondents who have lived with functional limitations have a lower general life satisfaction than before the onset. However, those who have lived with the limitation for more than five years rate their life satisfaction equal as when they not yet had these limitations. Not only does this finding provide statistical evidence supporting the hypothesis of the human ability to adapt, but it also highlights the importance of this ability for health care.

Questions raised for health Policy and health economics

These findings have implications for health policy as well. Understanding how much people adapt helps to correctly separate the effects attributable to interventions from those arising from adaptation and thus facilitates a better estimation of the effects of disease and treatment on quality of life.

Study by Anne de Hond, Pieter Bakx and Matthijs Versteegh (2018): Can time heal all wounds? An empirical assessment of adaptation to functional limitations in an older population. Social Sciences & Medicine 222 (2019), 180–187.


Photo: Adobe Stock / Tyler Olson