Psychologists say longer lives can still lead to happier golden years

August 7, 2009

As more people live well into their 80s and 90s, it's reassuring to know that most people get happier as they age and exert more emotional control than younger adults, according to researchers who spoke at the 117th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

"Life expectancy changed because people changed the way they lived," said Lauren Carstensen, PhD. "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."

Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, said the percentage of people on the planet who are over 65 is expected to more than double by the year 2050, and the fastest-growing segment of the population is people over 85.

Susan Turk Charles, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine, presented a review of several psychological studies on aging and . She found that except for people with dementia-related diseases, mental health generally improves with age. One study she cited - a 23-year longitudinal study looking at three groups of people, each at different stages in their lives - found that emotional happiness improved with age.

Research has also shown that older adults exert greater emotional control than younger adults, meaning older adults are more likely to actively avoid or limit negative, stressful situations than do younger adults, Charles said. She presented results from one study in which younger and older adults reported their thoughts and emotions after hearing personal criticism by two other people. Younger adults focused more on the negative comments and demanded more information about the origin of the criticism. Older adults were less likely to dwell on the negative comments and their responses were less negative overall compared to those of the younger adults.

"Based on work by Carstensen and her colleagues, we know that older people are increasingly aware that the time they have left in life is growing shorter," said Charles. "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."

However, Charles also said that these age-related benefits for older adults may not appear when older adults are faced with prolonged, distressful situations with no way to escape. "Older adults may have more difficulty with these situations because distressing events require both psychological and physical resources," she said. "We know that older adults who are dealing with chronic stressors, such as caregiving, report high rates of physical symptoms and emotional distress."

In separate addresses, Carstensen and Charles both acknowledged the importance of social relationships on longevity. Scientists have been uncovering evidence that the quality of people's relationships can influence the way their brains process information and how they respond physiologically to stress.

"These changes have a profound impact on health outcomes," Carstensen said. She cited a recent study of more than 1,000 Swedes in which those who had a strong social network were 60 percent less likely to have symptoms of cognitive impairment than those who did not. None of the participants showed signs of dementia before the study. The researchers assessed participants' social situations, including whether they were married or single, lived alone, and enjoyed their social circle.

And while older people's minds may appear to be slowing down to those around them, Meredyth Daneman, PhD, of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, said that may not always be the case. In a series of studies comparing young adults to during various cognitive and hearing tests, she found age-related declines in the ability to understand spoken language are often the result of a decline in hearing, rather than a decline in brain function.

Healthy aging, though, isn't just about looking at the very old. It's also about looking at the very young, Carstensen said. She pointed to a growing and compelling body of research that suggests even relatively small increases in education pay off in the quality and length of life. "Independent studies agree that even one additional year of education very likely increases life expectancy by more than a year," she said.

Carstensen had several suggestions for people who want to prepare for old age now:

  • Envision ways to thoroughly enjoy the years that lie ahead and imagine what it would be like to live a healthy, happy 100 years.
  • Design your social and physical environments - home, spending habits, eating habits - so that your daily routine reinforces your goals.
  • Diversify your expertise and activities and avoid putting your social investments into only your spouse, children or job.
Source: American Psychological Association (news : web)

Related Stories

Recommended for you

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

Risk of distracted driving predicted by age, gender, personality and driving frequency

November 17, 2017
New research identifies age, gender, personality and how often people drive as potential risk factors for becoming distracted while driving. Young men, extroverted or neurotic people, and people who drive more often were ...

When male voles drink alcohol, but their partner doesn't, their relationship suffers

November 17, 2017
A study of the effect of alcohol on long-term relationships finds that when a male prairie vole has access to alcohol, but his female partner doesn't, the relationship suffers - similar to what has been observed in human ...

Spanking linked to increase in children's behavior problems

November 16, 2017
Children who have been spanked by their parents by age 5 show an increase in behavior problems at age 6 and age 8 relative to children who have never been spanked, according to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal ...

Multiplayer video games: Researchers discover link between skill and intelligence

November 15, 2017
Researchers at the University of York have discovered a link between young people's ability to perform well at two popular video games and high levels of intelligence.

Generous people give in a heartbeat—new study

November 15, 2017
Altruistic people are said to be "kind hearted" - and new research published in the journal Scientific Reports shows that generous people really are more in touch with their own hearts.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dirk_bruere
not rated yet Aug 07, 2009
"Golden years" - what a load of crap to describe the downhill run to the grave
el_gramador
not rated yet Aug 08, 2009
So in other words they are telling us to have fun and control our environment?
Truth
not rated yet Aug 08, 2009
My grandfather turned 86 and was in the hospital because a car ran over his foot. Around two days later, I got a call from his doctor saying that my gramps was causing a scandal. Apparently, gramps had been having an affair with one of the nurses, a thirty-ish woman who incidently was married. The husban found out and was arrested for attempted murder with a knife. Gramps is okay, but I'm not. I'm still shuddering with the fact that my gramps is probably getting more nooky than I am. Sigh!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.