Two major studies about aging dominated the headlines this week presenting drastically opposing views on what old age has to offer — years of painful suffering or increased wellbeing and happiness?
The answer is both and, ironically, they are not mutually exclusive.
It is true, as the Global Burden of Disease study, led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at Washington University found, that living longer results in health problems that “cause us years of pain, disability and mental distress.” However, this study, which was called “the most comprehensive assessment of global health in the history of medicine,” misses the mark. There is a deeper, richer, reality to our longevity that is completely ignored by this report.
We find this in a contrasting Successful AGing Evaluation (SAGE) study from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Stanford University. When these researchers actually talked to and surveyed older adults who are supposedly suffering the “pain, disability and mental distress” of old age, they found the older the person the more likely they were to report being happy.
“It was clear to us that, even in the midst of physical or cognitive decline, individuals in our study reported feeling that their well-being had improved with age,” said principal investigator Dilip V. Jeste, MD, director of UC San Diego’s Stein Institute for Research on Aging, and the current President of the American Psychiatric Association. This counterintuitive increase in well-being with aging persisted even after accounting for variables like income, education and marriage.
The study concluded that resilience and depression have significant bearing on how individuals self-rate successful aging, with effects that are comparable to that of physical health. “Even though older age was closely associated with worse physical and cognitive functioning, it was also related to better mental functioning,“ said co-author Colin Depp, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
In a written statement, Jeste suggested the takeaway message for clinicians is that taking an optimistic approach to the care of seniors may help reduce societal ageism.
“There is considerable discussion In public forums about the financial drain on the society due to rising costs of healthcare for older adults – what some people disparagingly label the ‘silver tsunami.’ But, successfully aging older adults can be a great resource for younger generations,” Jeste said.
We couldn’t agree more.