The Older the Happier: UCSD Study Finds ‘Linear and Substantial’ Well-Being

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The mental health of adults gets better with age, according to a UC San Diego study published Wednesday.

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An audience member reacts to the conversation about Watergate at UCSD. Photo by Chris Stone

“Their improved sense of psychological well-being was linear and substantial,” said Dr. Dilip Jeste, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at UCSD. “Participants reported that they felt better about themselves and their lives year upon year, decade after decade.”

The researchers also discovered high levels of perceived stress, and symptoms of depression and anxiety, among adults in their 20s and 30s taking part in the study, featured in this month’s issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Conventional notions of aging largely describe it as an ongoing process of physical and cognitive deterioration, with little discussion about mental health except in the context of decline, according to the scientists.

It has been assumed that the mental health of older people mirrors their worsening physical and cognitive function. But Jeste, the report’s senior author, 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,” Jeste said. “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 scientists added that studies on the topic have emphasized different indicators, which lead to varying conclusions. The commonality is an improved psychological state later in life.

Jeste’s team examined the physical health, cognitive function and other measures of mental health in 1,546 adults, ages 21 to 100 and living in San Diego County, who were selected using random digit dialing. Participants were almost evenly split by gender, stratified by age decade, with an oversampling of adults over age 75.

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He said the linear nature of the findings was surprising, particularly in magnitude. The oldest cohort had mental health scores significantly better than the youngest cohort, though the former’s physical and cognitive function was measurably poorer than the latter’s.

The reason for the difference was unclear, according to UCSD, but may involve seniors having more wisdom, learning to cope with stress and retain fewer negative memories.

Jeste, the director of UCSD’s Center for Healthy Aging, expressed concern that the rates of psychological distress and mental illness in younger persons seem to be rising.

“Inadequate attention has been paid to mental health issues that continue or get exacerbated post-adolescence,” Jeste said. “We need to understand mechanisms underlying better mental health in older age in spite of more physical ailments.”

The research was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging at UCSD.

— City News Service

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