Growing older has its benefits, for women at least.
Rather than becoming moodier as they age, new research has found that many women get happier in later life, particularly in the 20 years from 50-years-old through to 70.
The University of Melbourne study found that both negative mood and depressive symptoms decreased significantly over that time, and across the years after menopause.
Until now, there has been little longitudinal research into depressive symptoms and negative mood as a specific measure and the research can be affected by bias, as those with a lowered mood drop out over time. But this study, published in Maturitas, a scientific journal focusing on midlife health and beyond, followed women for 20 years from the early 1990s.
The research – which was carried out by University of Melbourne psychologist Ms Katherine Campbell, psychiatrist Professor Lorraine Dennerstein, neurologist Professor Cassandra Szoeke, and Monash University’s Mark Tacey, combining input from University of Melbourne’s psychiatry, psychology, and neurology departments and the Melbourne EpiCentre, a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Health and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
It found that negative mood scores in Australian women decreased significantly as they transitioned from midlife (between the ages of 50–64) to late-life (over the age of 65). Depressive symptom scores also reduced significantly between the ages of 60 and 70. For many women, this appears to be related to the positivity around more “me” time as they wind down from full-time work and family responsibilities.
Ms Campbell says the findings suggest that mood improves as women transition from midlife to late-life. “The women in this study reported feeling more patient, less tense and they tended to be less withdrawn as they entered their sixties,” she says.
“They were no longer experiencing the physical symptoms associated with menopause and were actively engaging in the community. Many women are more comfortable within themselves by the time they enter late-life and a majority have accepted and embraced the ageing process.
The results are comforting for women who may assume that their mood will dip as they enter their senior years. In reality many enjoy life more, possibly due to easing work and family responsibilities.
But Professor Cassandra Szoeke adds that there have been relatively few longitudinal studies that have assessed negative mood over time in women, and more are needed.
“Physical illness, medication use and worrying about becoming ill are all more common in older adults and have been shown to inflate scores that measure depression,” she says.
“This makes the assessment of mood, which may provide a stable factor from which to determine risk of mood disorder, ripe for further research.”
In this 20-year Australian study, researchers looked at negative mood and depressive symptoms from the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project, which started in 1991 as the Melbourne Women’s Midlife Health Project and covers biological, lifestyle and health factors.
The project began with more than 400 women, who were aged between 45 and 55 when recruited in 1990. Of those, 252 participants remained after 20 years. It is believed to be the first study to include depressive symptoms and a separate assessment of negative mood over an extended period.
“Qualities of happiness” categories included confluence, optimism, self-esteem, self-efficacy, social support, social interest, freedom, energy, cheerfulness and thought clarity.
From these, 10 negative adjectives and 10 positive adjectives formed the Positive Mood and Negative Mood sub scales, with the overall result representing a general wellbeing score.
The negative adjectives were lonely, helpless, impatient, depressed, hopeless, withdrawn, discontented, confused, tense, and insignificant.
Biological, lifestyle and health factors were also assessed. They included age, body mass index (BMI), severity of ‘hassles’, number of bothersome physical symptoms, employment status, education status, use of alcohol, menopausal status, smoking status, marital status, living status, self-rated health and anti-depressant use.
“Women feel more in control of their lives and are still physically capable of enjoying their hobbies and travelling. They are often more financially stable and have less responsibility for children,” says Ms Campbell.
“They are free to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and are able to prioritise their own needs and wants. Most of the women we worked with were financially independent and lived in their own home.”
Global research studies specifically examining negative mood have already shown that adults generally report a decline in negative mood as they age.
One longitudinal analysis found negative mood scores decreased steadily in men and women to the age of 60, then continued to fall at a much slower rate.
Current knowledge on depressive symptoms is inconclusive. Some researchers have found increases across age groups and others have recorded decreases. Results can also be impacted by factors such as age and cultural background.
Ms Campbell says that while it is fair to assume that a number of these factors contribute to improved mood, researchers don’t have definitive answers.
“The next goal of our research is to explore this question and to determine why these women become less depressed.”
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