Researchers speaking at an international psychology conference said there was evidence that people get happier as they age, and that older people are better at controlling their emotions and avoiding things that make them unhappy. This does not include people with dementia or who are trapped in situations of high stress that they cannot escape from, such as caregiving.

The researchers were speaking at the 117th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association that took place from 6 to 9 August in Toronto, Canada.

Dr Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, USA, and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, said:

“Life expectancy changed because people changed the way they lived.”

“Now that we’re here, we have to keep adapting. We are in the middle of a second revolution and it’s up to us to make adulthood itself longer and healthier,” she added.

Carstensen said by 2050 there will be twice as many people over the age of 65 in the world as there are today. And the segment of the population that is growing faster than any other, is the over 85s.

Susan Turk Charles, from the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, in a separate presentation, talked about several studies on aging and mental health that she had reviewed. Excluding people with dementia and related diseases, the evidence supports the idea that, on the whole, mental health improves with age.

Charles referred to a study that followed three groups of people at different life stages for 23 years and found emotional happiness increased as they got older.

She said research also shows that older adults are better at controlling their emotions than younger adults, and this helps them avoid negative situations, or at least limit the emotional damage they can cause. One study she reviewed asked younger and older adults to report what they were thinking and feeling just after hearing personal criticisms by other people. The results showed that the younger adults tended to dwell far more on the comments and demanding information about their origins than the older adults whose reports were less negative overall.

Charles said that work by Carstensen and others suggests older people are increasingly aware that life is finite and the time they have left is shrinking.

“They want to make the best of it so they avoid engaging in situations that will make them unhappy. They have also had more time to learn and understand the intentions of others which help them to avoid these stressful situations,” she added.

But, she emphasized that this did not necessarily apply to older adults who are faced with prolonged, stressful circumstances that they cannot escape:

“Older adults may have more difficulty with these situations because distressing events require both psychological and physical resources,” said Charles, adding that:

“We know that older adults who are dealing with chronic stressors, such as caregiving, report high rates of physical symptoms and emotional distress.”

Both Carstensen and Charles mentioned the link between social relationships and longer life and how scientists have discovered that the number of relationships people have can influence the way their brains process information and that impacts how their bodies respond to stress which affects health.

Carstensen talked about a study that followed over 1,000 people in Sweden that showed those who had strong social networks were 60 per cent less likely to show symptoms of cognitive impairment than those who did not. None of the participants had dementia at the start of the study which assessed their social circumstances, such as whether they were married or single, lived alone, and enjoyed their social life.

Also, Dr Meredyth Daneman of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, said that while we may assume that older people’s minds are slowing down, research show that may not be the case: several studies comparing cognitive and hearing ability among younger and older adults have found that more often it is hearing and not cognitive decline that gives older adults problems in understanding language.

However, being healthy in old age is not just about what happens when we are old, it also starts when we are very young, said Carstensen who referred to a compelling and growing amount of research that shows even small increases in education can make a difference to the quality and length of people’s lives.

“Independent studies agree that even one additional year of education very likely increases life expectancy by more than a year,” said Carstensen who had this advice for people who want to prepare for old age now:

  • Create a vision of how you want your old age to be: imagine enjoying the years ahead, what does it mean for you to be healthy, happy and alive at 100?
  • Then re-engineer your social, physical, financial and other aspects of your life (your home, what you eat) so that every day you are making it more possible to reach that vision.
  • Avoid putting all your social investment in your spouse, children or job: diversify your expertise and activities.

“Emotional Experience Across the Adult Life Span: A Story of Strengths and Vulnerabilities.”
Susan Turk Charles; Symposium: Advances in Experimental Research on Aging.

“Age-Related Changes in Spoken Language Comprehension.”
Meredyth Daneman; Symposium: Advances in Experimental Research on Aging.

“A Long Bright Future: Aging in the 21st Century.”
Laura L. Carstensen, Invited Address.

117th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

Sources APA.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD