More Time and Less Work Could Mean That Mental Health Increases as we Age

Embracing old age can bring many benefits and rewards. And if you’re still young, it might surprise you to learn that getting old isn’t all bad.

By Avery Hurt; Medically Reviewed by Dr. Ahmad Talha Azam
Feb 28, 2024 4:00 PM
group of fit elderly people
(Credit: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

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No one looks forward to getting old; in fact, it can seem pretty scary. But you might be surprised to learn that aging brings some benefits. All things being equal —  given reasonably good health and a secure economic situation — older people tend to be happier than younger people, according to a growing body of research.

A widely cited study published in 2016 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looked at more than 1,500 people from 21 to 100 years old and found that mental health increases rather than decreases as we age. People in their 20s and 30s reported more depression and anxiety than older people. Older people reported being happier overall despite the normal deteriorations in physical and cognitive health that accompany aging. 

What accounts for this counterintuitive finding? It might be down to time and freedom. 

Goodbye Job Stress

Kenneth Boockvar is director of the Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics, and Palliative Care and director of the Integrative Center for Aging Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. His years of working with older patients and his experience with aging members of his own family have shown him that aging has its upsides.

Boockvar notes that some stresses are left behind as we age, leading to a higher quality of life. Retirement puts an end to job stresses, such as dealing with co-workers, bosses, and what Boockvar calls the “logistical” stresses of the working years. Need to arrange for an appliance repair? If you’re retired, you don’t have to squeeze the call in between meetings or when the boss isn’t looking. Have a doctor’s appointment at 3 p.m.? No worries.

“My retired patients definitely seem less stressed than my working patients when they come into the office,” Boockvar says. 


Read More: Aging is Still One of Biology's Greatest Mysteries


But it’s not just what you’re not spending time on that makes late life more satisfying, Boockvar says. It’s what you are able to spend time on. In later life, you have a chance to do those things you always meant to do when you were younger but couldn’t make time for because you were raising a family and holding down a job.

Now you have time to learn a new language, take up oil painting, learn to play the guitar, sign up for a course that will finally demystify quantum mechanics — you name it. And don’t think just because you’re old, your efforts are going to be subpar. Boockvar points out that your skills might be even better when you’re old because you have more time and attention to devote to them. 


Read More: Does Stress Cause Cognitive Decline?


Emotional Changes That Make Late Life Happier

The emotional terrain of old age also can be less rocky. You gain perspective during a long life, Boockvar says. “You learn what’s worth getting upset over and what’s not.”

After decades of living with life’s inevitable ups and downs, you develop some skills in dealing with them. “Resilience comes from practice as well as experience,” Boockvar says.

Old age doesn’t have to be lonely, either. Thanks to text and video calls, keeping in touch with children and grandchildren is easier than ever. Video conferencing apps, such as Zoom and Skype, make it possible for older people who don’t drive or have mobility issues to get together for book clubs, political meetings, or just hang out. 

And don’t think getting old means giving up romance. Boockvar points out that many older people still enjoy romance and intimacy. 

Prepare Now

Boockvar has one important reminder: If you want to take advantage of the many benefits of getting old, you need to take care of your health along the way. You know the drill: eat well, exercise regularly, and make sure to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose at safe levels.


Read More: How to Become A Super Ager


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Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

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