A survey of people living in San Diego County has noted that old people seem to be happier, more satisfied with their lives, and show fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression than young people. The findings go against certain elements of conventional wisdom regarding aging but also present a different model for mental health in aging than past studies into the matter.
In Brief: Aging and Mental Health
Although aging is known to involve declines in physical and cognitive ability, one of the more enduring paradoxes is that the elderly tend to have fewer mental health problems other than dementia when compared to a younger person. This has been seen across numerous past studies, but the exact strength of the phenomenon is hard to tell since each study uses different types of measurements and indicators and do not always look at the same signs of mental health. Despite these discrepancies, the general trend has been that the older you get, the better your mental health.
The San Diego Survey
The survey covered 1,546 adults between the ages of 21 and 100 who were living in San Diego County and who did not have dementia. Residents were given a mixture of phone interviews and home surveys and asked questions regarding physical health and mental health and were also interviewed to assess cognitive function.
Although the older participants had lower physical and cognitive scores, there was a linear relationship between age and good mental health. That is to say, the older someone was, the more likely they were to have a better mental health score than the younger groups.
The findings were particularly interesting since some past research has suggested the relationship between age and mental health formed more of a U shape, with the lowest point being somewhere between ages 45 and 55, but this wasn’t observed by the researchers.
It is important to clarify that the survey was only able to cover elements of mental health like anxiety, stress, worry, satisfaction, or depression-associated symptoms. The survey could not account for things like clinical diagnoses or actual psychiatric conditions.
The researchers have offered a few potential theories as to why they got the findings they did. They posited:
- Older adults are more skilled at coping with stressful changes and have learned “not to sweat the small stuff”
- Past findings have suggested older people have better emotional regulation and complex decision-making skills than young people
- Life experience could help minimize negative emotions or memories
- The “healthy person bias”, where less-healthy adults die sooner, which causes the older groups to have higher proportions of healthier, happier individuals
- Mental health issues among younger individuals are under-treated
LaFee, S., “Graying but Grinning: Despite Physical Ailments, Older Adults Happier,” UC San Diego web site, August 24, 2016; http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/graying_but_grinning_despite_physical_ailments_older_adults_happier, last accessed August 25, 2016.
Thomas, M., et al., “Paradoxical Trend for Improvement in Mental Health with Aging: A Community-Based Study of 1,546 Adults Aged 21-100 Years,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2016; 10.4088/JCP.16m1067.