Our stereotypes of old age are of people in the midst of a physical and mental decline. Gone is the vigor of youth....It's all aches and pains on the way to the inevitable...
What, then, are we to make of a recent telephone survey of 340,000 people aged 18 to 85 conducted by the Gallup organization, in which older people scored much higher than younger people on global well being?
In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, each person who was called ranked overall life satisfaction on a 10-point scale, as well as answered questions about their recent experience of enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, and sadness.
Contra stereotypes, 85 year olds were more satisfied with life than 18 year olds or 50 year olds. Moreover, a similar pattern was found when recent emotional states were examined, with older persons less likely to report stress and worry than younger persons.
As we ponder our epidemic of depression, soon to become the world's leading cause of disability, does this large study hold potential wisdom?
Right now, the leading edge of the fight against depression is with pharmaceutical companies, who are spending billions on building a better molecule to fight depression. Another thrust aims to develop and improve psychologically-based treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
This study suggests the possibility of opening a new front in this war. Might we learn important clues about how not to become depressed by studying how it is that the elderly in this survey (and in other studies) manage to achieve such high levels of well-being at the end of life? This is in many ways a modest proposal. Currenty, only 11 percent of the budget of the National Institutes of Health is spent on research on the elderly.
Reference Arthur A. Stone, Joseph E. Schwartz, Joan E. Broderick, and Angus Deaton A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States PNAS 2010 107 (22) 9985-9990; published ahead of print May 17, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.1003744107