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J Aging Res. 2018 Dec 16;2018:4930385. doi: 10.1155/2018/4930385. eCollection 2018.

Relating Sensory, Cognitive, and Neural Factors to Older Persons' Perceptions about Happiness: An Exploratory Study.

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Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, USA.
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA.
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
Brain Imaging and Analysis Center, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
Department of Sociology, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, USA.
Department of Ophthalmology, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, USA.
Department of Otolaryngology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA.
Department of Communication Disorders, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA.
Geriatrics Research Education and Clinical Center, Durham VA Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA.
Department of Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, USA.


Despite increased rates of disease, disability, and social losses with aging, seniors consistently report higher levels of subjective well-being (SWB), a construct closely related to happiness, than younger adults. In this exploratory study, we utilized an available dataset to investigate how aspects of health commonly deteriorating with age, including sensory (i.e., vision and hearing) and cognitive status, relate to variability in self-described contributors to happiness. Community-dwelling seniors (n = 114) responded to a single-item prompt: "name things that make people happy." 1731 responses were categorized into 13 domains of SWB via structured content analysis. Sensory health and cognition were assessed by Snellen visual acuity, pure-tone audiometry, and in-person administration of the Brief Test of Adult Cognition by Telephone (BTACT) battery. A subset of eligible participants (n = 57) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess resting state functional connectivity (FC) within a previously described dopaminergic network associated with reward processing. SWB response patterns were relatively stable across gender, sensory status, and cognitive performance with few exceptions. For example, hearing-impaired participants listed fewer determinants of SWB (13.59 vs. 17.16; p < 0.001) and were less likely to name things in the "special events" category. Participants with a higher proportion of responses in the "accomplishments" domain (e.g., winning, getting good grades) demonstrated increased FC between the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens, regions implicated in reward and motivated behavior. While the framework for determinants of happiness among seniors was largely stable across the factors assessed here, our findings suggest that subtle changes in this construct may be linked to sensory loss. The possibility that perceptions about determinants of happiness might relate to differences in intrinsic connectivity within reward-related brain networks also warrants further investigation.

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