Mental Health Study: Age Trumps Angst

If your gums or hairline are in full retreat, your knees have gone gimpy and your hair is gray, don't despair. Despite the physical decline, you'll probably be happier as you grow older, according to a study that gauged the mental well-being of a group of Californians across nearly half a century.

The research draws on a longitudinal study that is tracking a cohort of people born in the 1920s in Oakland or Berkeley. The participants were interviewed by psychologists regularly during childhood and somewhat less often during their adult years.

Using six of these evaluations--from ages 14, 18, 30, 40, 50, and 62--psychologists Constance Jones of California State University, Fresno, and William Meredith of the University of California, Berkeley, set out to follow changes in mental health. To quantify this overall sense of well-being, they had clinical psychologists evaluate transcripts of the interviews of 236 participants and score them for 73 characteristics. Healthy traits, for example, included descriptions such as "is genuinely dependable and responsible" and "is socially perceptive of a wide range of interpersonal cues." Evidence for mental turmoil? "Feels cheated and victimized by life," "is self-defeating," or "is generally fearful." Combining all the scores gave a composite index of mental health.

Comparing the ratings over time, Jones and Meredith found that mental health tended to stagnate during adolescence but then improved steadily during adulthood. Although the teens with the highest scores gained the most as adults, even troubled youth showed some improvement in mental health as they aged, the researchers report in the June issue of Psychology and Aging.

Although the results are heartening, sociologist Glen Elder Jr. of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, cautions that they will have to be confirmed with other longitudinal studies. The participants all grew up during the Great Depression, which could account for their psychic turmoil during adolescence, while America's growing prosperity after World War II may have buoyed their adult mental health.