happy older couple
Mental & Emotional Health

Good News as We Age! We’re Happier Now Than Ever, Health Issues and All.

A study done by researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and published in the August 2016 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests a paradoxical trend in the mental health of aging adults: They seem to consistently get better over time.

A release from the university quotes senior author Dilip Jeste, MD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and director of the Center on Healthy Aging at UC San Diego, as saying, “Their improved sense of psychological well-being was linear and substantial. Participants reported that they felt better about themselves and their lives year upon year, decade after decade.”

Conversely, Jeste and colleagues noted high levels of perceived stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety among adults in their 20s and 30s participating in the study. “This ‘fountain of youth’ period is associated with far worse levels of psychological well-being than any other period of adulthood,” he said.

The release notes that conventional notions of aging have largely described it as an ongoing process of physical and cognitive decline, with little discussion about mental health except in the context of decline. It has been broadly assumed that the mental health of older people mirrors their worsening physical and cognitive function.

But Jeste, who has long studied the phenomenon as the Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging and director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging, both at UC San Diego, said actual research, though limited, produces mixed findings.

“Some investigators have reported a U-shaped curve of well-being across the lifespan, with declines from early adulthood to middle age followed by an improvement in later adulthood. The nadir of mental health in this model occurs during middle age, roughly 45 to 55. However, we did not find such a mid-life dip in well-being.”

The reasons for these differences in results aren’t obvious. There is measurement variation across studies, with different researchers emphasizing different indicators that, ultimately, produce different conclusions. Nonetheless, the commonality is in finding improved well-being in the second half of life. Jeste emphasized that this study was not restricted to psychological well-being, but included “mental health”, which is broader in definition and also includes satisfaction with life, and low levels of perceived stress, anxiety, and depression.

Most epidemiologic studies report lower prevalence of all mental illnesses in older adults, except for dementias. “Some cognitive decline over time is inevitable,” said Jeste, “but its effect is clearly not uniform and in many people, not clinically significant — at least in terms of impacting their sense of well-being and enjoyment of life.”

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