Abstract Increasing evidence suggests that exposure to stressful life events and a variety of psychosocial factors are related to different health outcomes in the elderly. Our purpose is to study the predictive value of each of these items on the ability deterioration of a panel of 645 rural adults, aged 60 and over, living at home and followed for 4 years (1982–1986). This survey was carried out in five rural areas of Haute-Garonne (South-West France). Data were collected from the elderly themselves by questionnaire in 1982 and 1986. An indicator of ability evolution (1982–1986) was constructed for all those surviving and reviewed in 1986. Our study concerned 470 elderly people. Ability deterioration was 55.3% (260 elderly people). The analysis of age-adjusted relative risk (RR) of ability deterioration showed a significant impact of economic level (RR = 2.3), self-rated health (RR = 2.2) and reported morbidity (RR = 2.2). Among the psychosocial factors, we noted the predictive role of a lack of project for the future (RR = 1.7) and mostly of a feeling of uselessness (RR = 9.8), but also of non-participation in association activities for people aged less than 75. All these relationships remain significant after adjustment according to reported morbidity. In contrast, no significant effect was found for social support and life events which occurred during the follow-up period. Logistic discriminant analysis and segmentation analysis were performed. They confirmed the independence of the predictive roles played by age, economic level, reported morbidity and the feeling of uselessness. These results, discussed with bibliographic data, should give a better knowledge of the processes which underline pathological ageing.