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High quality of life in old age despite chronic disorders

Health problems and chronic disorders in old age do not necessarily lead to a lower quality of life, a recent ZHAW study shows. However, the study also reveals that social inequality has an impact on people’s chance of ageing healthily.

In 2016, 31% of the Swiss population were aged 55 or older. This percentage will grow in the coming decades. Approximately half of the people aged 55 or older, and even two thirds of those over 75, are living with at least one chronic disorder. However, this does not necessarily mean that their quality of life is lowered or that their daily life is greatly impaired. This was discovered in a study on the health of the ageing population in Switzerland on behalf of the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) which the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences has published in collaboration with the Faculty of Business and Economics (HEC) at the University of Lausanne and the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences (FORS). The study is based on data collected from approximately 4,600 interviewees within the framework of the “Survey on Health, Aging and Retirement” (SHARE). SHARE was initialised in 2002 and is the first European long-term poll of people over 50.

Men subjectively assess themselves as healthier

The majority of the older Swiss population consider their quality of life to be good to excellent.
“As could be expected, the state of health deteriorates with older age groups,” explains ZHAW researcher Marc Höglinger, one of the co-authors of the study. Still around two thirds of the 83-to-89-year-olds consider their state of health to be good to excellent. With regard to subjective health assessment, differences between the sexes can be observed. With increasing age, women perceive their general state of health as worse than men in the same age group. While 68% of the 83-to-89-year-old men consider their health to be good to excellent, the same applies to only 63% of the women in the same age group.

Lower education level means higher risk

Whether one gets the chance to stay healthy and have a high quality of life in old age depends not only on individual physical conditions, but also on various material and social resources. The ZHAW study shows that people with a low educational level, low income or migration background not only have a higher risk of various chronic diseases, but also poorer health behaviour and lower quality of life than average. The factor of household size also has an impact on healthy ageing.
“Individuals living alone systematically assess their own health as worse, experience pain more often and report a lower quality of life than individuals living with someone else,” says Marc Höglinger.

Older women often suffer from depression

Roughly half of those over 55 suffer from at least one chronic disorder, the study shows. The same applies to 70% of the 83-to-89-year-olds. The most common chronic disorders are musculoskeletal disorders, depression, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes. Women and men are affected by chronic diseases in different ways. For example, women suffer from musculoskeletal disorders and depression more often than men. Men are more often affected by cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes. The fact that around 60% of the chronically sick consider their state of health to be good or very good shows that a chronic disorder does not necessarily need to result in major health impairments. It also shows that other factors can have a strong influence on people’s state of health as well.
“Although this is a pleasing result, we must not be deceived. There are many people with chronic disorders who need help,” Marc Höglinger points out. This becomes clear, for example, with chronically sick people living alone, he says. They experience more severe restrictions in their everyday autonomy and a lower quality of life as compared with chronically sick people in general.

Smoking and hazardous alcohol consumption widespread

Compared with other countries, Switzerland shows good results with regard to health standards and quality of life among the older population.
“There is still untapped potential, especially in the area of prevention,” says Marc Höglinger. As the study conducted by the ZHAW School of Management and Law shows, there is potential for improvement in many older people’s health behaviour. Roughly 40% of women and 60% of men are overweight, and roughly 15% are obese. Smoking and hazardous alcohol consumption are widespread among older people too. Also, the percentage of people who do not exercise enough increases with advancing age. Höglinger states: “If we manage to address groups with poor health behaviour, we can still improve the state of health among the older population, which is already good in general.”


Marc Höglinger, ZHAW School of Management and Law, Winterthur Institute of Health Economics, phone 058 934 49 80, email

ZHAW Corporate Communications, phone 058 934 75 75, email