Volume 12, Number 10
Stereotypes of aging are generally negative. Many adults lament getting older. A prevailing view of aging is one of general decline, including deterioration of physical and cognitive function. While vulnerability to many physical health problems do increase with age and there tends to be some decrease in aspects of cognitive function as people age, mental health appears to be an altogether different story.
A study conducted by investigators from the University of California, San Diego, involved data collection from over 1500 adults, aged 21-100 years as part of the Successful Aging Evaluation (SAGE) study. Analysis of the data showed a linear improvement in mental health through adulthood, whereas in the same sample there was decline in physical and cognitive function. More specifically, age was correlated with increased happiness, greater satisfaction with life, less depression, and less anxiety. Young adulthood appeared to be the period in life where persons are most vulnerable to emotional distress. The finding that mental health improves with age is consistent with evidence that mental disorders decrease in prevalence with age.
Development of skills related to resilience may be a key reason for these findings. With life experience, persons often learn to keep matters in perspective, more effectively cope with adversity, and generally become wiser. Related to this, adults tend to better manage their emotions and improve in decision-making and problem-solving skills.
It is noteworthy that mental health gets better with age in spite of the fact that our society does relatively little to promote and improve mental health. Other research has established that few persons are as mentally healthy as they potentially can be. This suggests that there is much opportunity to further develop the skills that constitute emotional and social intelligence in order to enhance resilience and well-being. As persons age, such capabilities are important for managing the functional impacts of physical and cognitive decline, helping preserve and enrich quality of life, and potentially improving physical health status.
It is also known that positive views of aging are associated with better health and greater longevity. Taken together, the research examining age and mental health suggests that there are good reasons to celebrate birthdays in adulthood.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Behavioral Science for the Family Medicine Residency Program, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His clinical practice includes psychotherapy, consultation, and coaching.
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