A new study finds the mental health of middle-aged individuals may be surprisingly robust. Finnish investigators used a unique data set where a group of nearly 370 people have been followed from age eight to 50. They discovered that over time, four groups of mental well-being emerged.
The novel data set was the product of individual participation in the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development (JYLS) for over 40 years.
The longitudinal study allowed researchers to capture data for multiple dimensions of mental well-being — including satisfaction with life and psychological and social well-being — over time.
Psychological well-being refers to an individual’s sense of having a purpose in life and personal growth, whereas social well-being is characterized by a sense of environmental mastery and acceptance.
Investigators assessed mental health when the study participants were 36, 42, and 50 years old. Research Director Katja Kokko from the Gerontology Research Center at the University of Jyväskylä explains:
“Our analyses provided two new perspectives to the study of mental well-being: First, we included positive dimensions of mental well-being and did not consider it only as an absence of mental distress.
“Second, while it is common to analyze an average developmental trend of mental well-being over time, we looked for groups of individuals differing in their developmental trajectories.”
During the follow-up period, four groups of mental well-being emerged.
Twenty-nine percent of participants were classified as having a high level of life satisfaction as well as psychological and social well-being throughout the study period.
Further, 47 percent had a relatively high and 22 percent a moderately high level of mental well-being.
Conversely, about three percent of the participants had a relatively low score in all the well-being dimensions from age 36 to 50.
“It was a bit unexpected how stable mental well-being was in mid-adulthood and that a majority of the middle-aged had such a high level of well-being,” Kokko explains.
“However, it should be noted that the follow-up intervals were rather long, about six to eight years, and it is possible that within those years mental well-being fluctuated but then returned to an individual’s characteristic level.”
The groups of mental well-being were compared to each other in other areas of functioning as well.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the individuals on the trajectories for high, relatively high, and moderate well-being had more satisfying relationships, more favorable working careers, and fewer diseases than those individuals on the low well-being trajectory.
Few differences between the groups were observed in physical or cognitive functioning.
“We found that only stable low mental well-being — developed over a lengthy period of time, was a risk factor for unfavorable relationships, working career, and health,” Kokko says.
“In older adulthood, mental well-being will possibly also relate to physical and cognitive functioning when there is more variation among the individuals in these areas.”
The present analyses shed light on the development of multi-dimensionally assessed mental well-being in mid-adulthood. They further help identify those groups of individuals who are at the greatest risk. Improving their mental well-being can contribute to functioning in old adulthood.
Source: University of Jyväskylä