Much of my recent research has explored the links between mastery and health across the life course. In general, mastery, defined as feeling like you have control over your life circumstances, is a robust predictor of better health outcomes including morbidity and mortality (Latham-Mintus & Clarke, 2017; Latham-Mintus, Vowels, & Huskins, 2017; Pearlin et al., 2007).
Mastery is thought to be an important coping resource that encourages positive health behaviors and also alleviates the effects of stress on the body. Because of the connections between mastery and health-promoting behaviors, it is often viewed as a potential avenue for intervention among older adults.
My own research, along with Philippa J. Clarke, has demonstrated that high levels of life course mastery is predictive of mobility device use among older adults with functional limitations (Latham-Mintus & Clarke, 2017). Older adults with a history of high life course mastery were more likely to use mobility devices such as walkers, wheelchairs, or canes in the face of functional impairment (see figure below). The use of assistive technology is a health-promoting behavior, which encourages independence and greater wellbeing among older adults. This research shows that mastery across the life course has the capacity to influence health behaviors and disease/impairment management in later life.
More recent research, along with Katelyn M. Aman, examined the association between childhood disadvantage and recovery from mobility limitation (i.e., difficulty walking and climbing stairs) (Latham-Mintus & Aman, 2017). In general, economic and health disadvantage before age 16 was associated with lower odds of recovery from mobility limitation. However, we also investigated whether certain psychosocial factors buffered the effect of childhood disadvantage on recovery outcomes. Mastery was a significant moderator of childhood disadvantage (i.e., moving for financial reasons) and recovery (see figure below). Mastery may be able to diminish the negative effects of financial hardship in childhood on recovery outcomes in later life. However, it also underscores the particularly harmful effects of low mastery among those with childhood disadvantage experiences.
Source: Latham-Mintus, K. & Aman, K. M. (2017). Childhood Disadvantage, Psychosocial Resiliency, and Later Life Functioning: Linking Early-Life Circumstances to Recovery from Mobility Limitation. Journal of Aging and Health.
While it appears that mastery has the capacity to improve the health and wellbeing of older adults including encouraging adoption of assistive technology and buffering the adverse effects of childhood economic disadvantage, it also important to note that feelings of mastery reflect structural conditions. In other words, those who have been exposed to discrimination and constrained economic opportunities such as people with low socioeconomic status or minorities typically report less mastery (Latham-Mintus, Vowels, & Huskins, 2017).
Furthermore, it appears that the effect of mastery on health varies by sex and race. To illustrate, research completed with two IUPUI Sociology graduate students (Ashley Vowels and Kyle Huskins) documented that mastery was a strong predictor of healthy aging among older white men, but a weak predictor among older black men (see figure below).
Source: Latham-Mintus, K., Vowels, A. L., & Huskins, K. (2017). Healthy aging among Black and White older American men: What is the role of mastery? The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences.
We posit that mastery may be a less effective coping resource for reducing stress reactivity among older black men because of limited opportunities to exert control over their environment throughout the life course. Equally, a lack of mastery may be exceptionally detrimental to older white men’s health because there is a higher expectation of having control over their environment due to structural advantages over the life course.
In sum, mastery may hold the potential to improve health and wellbeing of older adults; however, it is vital to recognize that mastery is not equally distributed among populations (i.e., those with marginalized statuses tend to have less mastery) and that the health-promoting effect of mastery on health is concentrated among the advantaged.
Because mastery develops over the life course, it has its roots in childhood. Exposing children and young adults to environments that embolden feelings of confidence and perceptions of control may have long-lasting impact on health and health behaviors in older ages. Giving individuals in early life the opportunities to achieve status attainment in home, school, or work environments and exposing them to mastery experiences may promote high levels of mastery throughout their lives. Early investments in fostering life course mastery, particularly in socially disadvantaged groups, may have larger gains for population health in the long term.
This should not take away from policies and interventions that seek to enhance current mastery or sense of control among older adults. Interventions aimed at improving current mastery and increasing participation in health behaviors may ameliorate the impact of childhood disadvantage. For example, previous research has documented successful interventions by empowering older adults through peer-to-peer support, increasing knowledge, and fostering increased decision-making opportunities. Enabling people, old and young, to feel empowered in their lives may be an important piece of the puzzle for future population health promotion.
Latham-Mintus, K. & Aman, K. M. (2017). Childhood Disadvantage, Psychosocial Resiliency, and Later Life Functioning: Linking Early-Life Circumstances to Recovery from Mobility Limitation. Journal of Aging and Health.
Latham-Mintus, K., Vowels, A. L., & Huskins, K. (2017). Healthy aging among Black and White older American men: What is the role of mastery? The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences.