Older adults with regular activity routines are happier and do better on cognitive tests, study finds

Older adults who consistently get up early and remain active throughout the day are happier and perform better on cognitive tests than those with irregular activity patterns, according to a new study led by University of Pittsburgh researchers.

The findings, published online in JAMA Psychiatry, suggest that patterns of activity — not just activity intensity — are important for healthy aging and mental health.

“There’s something about getting going early, staying active all day and following the same routine each day that seems to be protecting older adults,” said lead author Stephen Smagula, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Pitt. “What’s exciting about these findings is that activity patterns are under voluntary control, which means that making intentional changes to one’s daily routine could improve health and wellness.”

To learn more about daily activity patterns in U.S.-based older adults and identify links with mental health and cognition, Smagula and his team recruited 1,800 senior citizens aged over 65. Participants wore accelerometers — movement-detecting devices often found in smartphones and exercise trackers — on their wrist for seven days to measure activity, and they completed questionnaires to assess depression symptoms and cognitive function.

The analysis showed that 37.6% of participants rose early in the morning, stayed active throughout the day and had consistent daily routines.

“Many older adults had robust patterns: They get up before 7 a.m. on average, and they keep going; they stay active for 15 hours or so each day. They also tend to follow the same pattern day in, day out,” said Smagula. “Lo and behold, those same adults were happier, less depressed and had better cognitive function than other participants.”

Another group comprising 32.6% of participants similarly had consistent daily patterns but were active for an average of just 13.4 hours each day because they rose later in the morning or settled down earlier in the evening. This group had more depression symptoms and poorer cognition than the early risers.

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