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Good News for Elderly: Happiness Keeps Growing

Older adults learn to limit negative influences, studies show

THURSDAY, Aug. 13 (HealthDay News) -- The longer you live, the happier you're likely to be, a growing body of research shows.

Researchers who spoke at the recently concluded annual convention of the American Psychological Association in Toronto said that mental health generally improves with age. Given that the world population of people over 65 is expected to nearly triple by 2050, according to U.S. officials, this should come as good news.

Reporting on several studies of aging and mental health, Susan Turk Charles, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the findings indicate that happiness and emotional well-being improve with time.

Older adults exert greater emotional control, said Charles. Studies show they learn to avoid or limit stressful situations and are less likely than younger adults to let negative comments or criticism bother them.

Charles added that "we know that older people are increasingly aware that the time they have left in life is growing shorter. 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 helps them to avoid these stressful situations."

Another study conducted over a 23-year period examined three groups of people at three different life stages and concluded that emotional happiness grew with age, she said.

These findings may not apply to older adults who feel trapped in distressing situations and those with forms of dementia, Charles said. "We know that older adults who are dealing with chronic stressors, such as caregiving, report high rates of physical symptoms and emotional distress," she added.

In separate reports, Charles and Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University, also noted that social relationships -- or lack of them -- influence how older people respond to stress. Carstensen cited a Swedish study that concluded that people with strong social connections were less likely to suffer cognitive impairment than others. It seems social relationships influence the way that the brain processes information, she said. "These changes have a profound impact on health outcomes," Carstensen said.

To make the most of the coming years, Carstensen offered these tips:

  • Think of ways to enjoy the time ahead and try to imagine living 100, healthy, happy years.
  • Provide daily routines that reinforce your goals, both in your home and in your social life.
  • Develop new activities and relationships, and don't invest all of your emotional energy in a job or a single relationship.

More information

For more about positive aging, visit the American Geriatrics Society.

-- Margaret Steele

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Aug. 7, 2009

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