A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that mental health follows a very different path than physical and cognitive health in aging. Mental health in adulthood appears to progressively improve in a linear fashion from age 20 through age 100 (see figure 1 below).
The findings were based on telephone interviews and in-home surveys that assessed the cognitive, physical, and mental health of 1,546 adults aged 21 to 99 from San Diego County, California. Participants were excluded from the study if they lived in a nursing home, were known to have received a prior diagnosis of dementia, or had a terminal illness.
The authors of the study suggest that this finding may relate to the fact that older people are better able to avoid being trapped in negative patterns of thought. They have more of a sense of perspective about adversity.
“An important explanation for improved mental health in later life is an increase in wisdom with aging, as suggested by several (but not all) studies. Researchers have reported that, compared to younger adults, older individuals tend to be more skilled at emotional regulation and complex social decision-making and tend to exhibit more positively valenced information processing. Others have found that as people age, they experience fewer negative emotions, regulate their emotions more effectively, and show positive biases in their memory… In one investigation, Gooding and colleagues reported that older adults were more resilient than younger ones with respect to emotional regulation and problem solving. These behavioral changes parallel functional imaging studies showing diminished responsiveness of the amygdala to negative or stressful images in older compared to younger adults. Such positivity may lead to higher levels of subjective well-being in later life.”
Whatever the explanation, it points to a positive aspect to aging that is often ignored in a culture that often seems preoccupied with youth and that seems to minimize the value of wisdom in aging.
For More Information
Paradoxical Trend for Improvement in Mental Health With Aging: A Community-Based Study of 1,546 Adults Aged 21–100 Years. Michael L. Thomas, Christopher N. Kaufmann, Barton W. Palmer, Colin A. Depp, Averria Sirkin Martin, Danielle K. Glorioso, Wesley K. Thompson, and Dilip V. Jeste. J Clin Psychiatry 2016;77(8):e1019–e1025