Growing old can bring a renewed sense of happiness and wellbeing, despite physical and mental declines, researchers report today in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
The finding adds to growing evidence that aging is not all "doom and gloom," said Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego. Instead, old age can be a time of growth, and older people can be a helpful resource for younger generations.
Psychiatrists, too, might do well to re-evaluate their expectations for older patients.
"As people get older, they are less bothered by some things that stress them out when they were younger," Jeste said.
"When you're 20 and you look at an elderly man in a wheelchair, you say, 'I don't want to be like that,'" Jeste explained. "But when you're 80 and in a wheelchair, you say, 'I'm so lucky that I'm alive because many of my peers are dying. I still have my mind and brain, and I can look back on my life and feel good about what I've done.'"
In the United States today, there are about 40 million people over age 65, a number expected to grow to 72 million by 2030. People in their later years make up one of the fastest-growing demographic groups.
Yet, ageism is still rampant in society. With their accumulating health problems, older people are often seen as a burden on society. Young people tend to associate old age with depression and dementia.
Despite the stereotypes, Jeste has seen plenty of people in his practice thriving in their old age.
To better understand what happens in those golden years, he focused on how people viewed their own aging process. Previous research has looked at a metric called "successful aging," which is often gauged through evaluations of things like disease, disability and cognitive impairment. But Jeste was interested in people's subjective views of themselves.
Using a random sample of about 1,000 Americans ages 50 to 99, Jeste and colleagues assessed health, depression and mental functioning through a 25-minute telephone interview. Participants also filled out a questionnaire at home that they mailed in to the researchers.
Among the survey questions, participants were asked to rate their own perceptions of how successfully they were aging on a 10-point scale. They were left to decide for themselves what "successful aging" meant.
As expected, older people suffered from more disabilities and more memory problems than younger people did, the researchers report. But in direct opposition of that line, assessments of how successfully they were aging went up with each decade of life.
Because the new study looked only at different people at different ages, not at individuals throughout their lifetimes.
The research does not prove that aging inherently boosts wellbeing, said Barbara Hawkins, of the Indiana University School of Public Health in Bloomington. It's possible, for example, that by interviewing people who were still alive in their 80s and 90s, the researchers simply hit on a particularly robust sample of older folks.
Nonetheless, the findings add to growing evidence that aging can be a positive process. People tend to adapt with resilience to their own physical and mental declines, Hawkins said. And when it comes to chronic disease, age is less important than an active lifestyle and a positive outlook.
"There is ample evidence that as we age we do not become despondent," Hawkins said. "Yes, age 63 is heaps different than 36. But in some ways, I am happier and healthier, no longer juggling two children and a high-demand job.
"It takes a whole semester for me to transition my students' outlook from dread to 'Oh, this aging thing just might be OK,'" she added. "In spite of physiological changes with age, I do present them with a happy, well adjusted, funny and healthy professor."