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Midlife crisis apparently is a myth.

While even the best wines eventually peak and turn to vinegar, a study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, suggests a paradoxical trend in the mental health of aging adults: they consistently seem to get better over time. "Their improved sense of psychological well-being was linear and substantial," says senior author Dilip Jeste, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and director of the Center on Healthy Aging. "Participants reported that they felt better about themselves and their lives year upon year, decade after decade."

Conversely, Jeste and colleagues note 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 notes.

Conventional notions of aging largely have described it as an ongoing process of physical and cognitive decline, with little discussion about mental health, except in the context of decline. It broadly has been assumed that the mental health of older people mirrors their worsening physical and cognitive function. "Some investigators have reported a U-shaped curve of well-being across the life span, 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 midlife dip in well-being."

The reasons for these differences in results are not 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 emphasizes 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," asserts 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."

The linear nature of the findings was surprising, admits Jeste, 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 reasons for improved positive mental health in old age are not clear. Some previous research has shown older adults become more adept at coping with stressful changes. They learn "not to sweat out the little things, and a lot of previously big things become little."

However, another important explanation may be increased wisdom with age. A number of studies have shown that older individuals tend to be more skilled at emotional regulation and complex social decision-making. They also experience and retain fewer negative emotions and memories. These all are collective elements of wisdom, as defined by the researchers.

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Title Annotation:Aging
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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