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Living life well

January 19, 2022 — 

A recent Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging article published in Rural and Remote Health found that older adults living in urban areas tend to be less satisfied with their lives than their rural counterparts.

Philip St. John, a professor of internal medicine at Max Rady College of Medicine, worked with a team of researchers to survey individuals aged 45-85 living in rural, mixed and urban environments across the country. The study measured the average life satisfaction of people living in urban and rural environments.  

St. John has had a passion for working in geriatrics since he started in medicine, graduating from UM with his MD in 1990 and his internal medicine residency in 1995 and a Master’s of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University in 1997. He was formally recognized as a Gerontological Society of America Fellow in the Health Sciences section in 2021 for his outstanding work in the field.  He has been a longstanding member of the Canadian Geriatrics Society and the Canadian Association on Gerontology and was the health sciences section editor of the Canadian Journal on Aging.

“I’ve always liked working with older adults. It’s an area where you get to spend a lot of time talking to, and really listening to, people,” said St. John, also a member of the geriatric medicine specialty committee of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba. “You’re able to focus on maintaining the quality of life which has always been important to me.”

Participants in the “Life satisfaction in adults in rural and urban regions of Canada” study were given a survey with five questions and asked to score their answers between strongly disagree (1) and strongly agree (7.) The questions were from the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS,) a tool that’s been used across the globe to help researchers understand how content individuals are with their lives.

The survey asked: In most ways, my life is close to my ideal; the conditions of my life are excellent; I am satisfied with my life; so far I have gotten the important things I want in life; and, if I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing. 

Rural participants averaged a score of 28.9, while urban residents averaged a score of 28.1. While anywhere between 25 and 29 is considered a high score, there is a noticeable difference in satisfaction between rural and urban areas

From these scores, researchers can understand participants’ overall happiness as well as estimate their future physical health.

“Life satisfaction is an important outcome in itself, but it’s also a key predictor variable,” says St. John. “Life satisfaction is able to predict death and disability. Those with higher life satisfaction scores have a slightly lower mortality risk.”

A variety of factors in addition to where a person lives can influence their score: education level, health issues, household size, income level, relationship status and sex have an impact on overall satisfaction.

More research is required to fully understand why those living in rural areas are generally more satisfied with life, but St. John has some insights.

The study found having a higher income was strongly associated with life satisfaction, while living with a chronic illness leads to lower life satisfaction.

“Tending to inequality in both rural and urban areas is important, for all kinds of reasons,” says St. John. “Individual habits are important, but we can’t look at the individual in isolation. We need to restructure society so people have happier lives. We can do that by ensuring there aren’t large gaps of inequality.”

By understanding what factors influence life satisfaction, we can begin to address barriers and ensure a higher level of life satisfaction for all.

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