50+ health * Healthy living

Older people are the happiest

Older people happiest After age 45, people's happiness increases with age

Grumpy old men such as the TV character Victor Meldrew are a myth, as men and women generally grow happier as they grow older, a study has found.

Despite people's physical health deteriorating as they age, researchers from Warwick Medical School found that mental wellbeing actually improves.

The study of more than 10,000 people in Britain and the US confirms previous research which suggests that happiness levels follow a U-shape curve, reaching a low point in the mid-40s, after which they rise with increasing age.

The Warwick team assessed the study participants quality of life using eight different factors, including perception of general health, pain, social interactions and mental health.

People reported a better mental quality of life as they aged, despite a decrease in their physical health, the study found.

This was true of people living in both countries, despite the UK and US having significantly different health and welfare systems, both of which can affect a person's quality of life.

However, people from more affluent backgrounds living in the US were more likely to report better mental and physical health than those who were less well-off.

The researchers suggested this could be due to the presence of universal healthcare in the UK, which could have a "levelling effect" on well-being.

They also looked at the effect of sleep on the quality of life, and found there was an optimum amount of sleep.

Sleeping between six and eight hours a day was linked to both better physical and mental health scores compared with those who slept an average of less than six hours or more than eight hours, the researchers said.

Being overweight or obese did not have a significant impact on mental well-being. People with a BMI of more than 30, regarded as obese, showed similar mental quality of life levels to those considered to be of healthy weight.

Dr Saverio Stranges, who led the study at Warwick Medical School, along with Dr Kandala Ngianga-Bakwin, said: "It's obvious that people's physical quality of life deteriorates as they age, but what is interesting is that their mental well-being doesn't also deteriorate – in fact it increases.

"We suggest that this could be due to better coping abilities, an interpretation supported by previous research showing older people tend to have internal mechanisms to deal better with hardship or negative circumstances than those who are younger.

"It could also be due to a lowering of expectations from life, with older people less likely to put pressure on themselves in the personal and professional spheres."

The study is published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.

This article was published on Mon 12 March 2012

Image © Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com

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