Aging, Mental Health, and Well-Being Essay

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Social factors are strongly implicated in mental health and well-being throughout life, including old age. Sociologists argue that mental health and subjective well-being are powerful indicators of how well societies serve their members both individually and collectively. That is, effective societies not only meet the basic needs of their members, but also provide the conditions and opportunities that sustain emotional health and perceptions that life is good.

The vast majority of Americans are relatively free of psychiatric or emotional symptoms and are generally satisfied with their lives. This pattern is at least as strong for older adults as for young and middle-aged adults. Comparison of research based on older samples with those from age-heterogeneous samples reveals only a few rather subtle, but important, differences. The most distinctive aspect of depression and distress in later life is the prominent role of physical illness and disability in increasing risk of depression. Many studies suggest that physical illness and/or disability is the strongest single predictor of depression and distress; in contrast, physical health is of negligible importance during young adulthood and middle age. In contrast, demographic variables are weaker predictors of depression and distress in late life than earlier in adulthood. Racial or ethnic differences are minimally important during later life and even gender differences in depression, which are very large in young adulthood, narrow substantially by late life.


  • George, L. K. (2004) Social and economic factors related to psychiatric disorders in late life. In Blazer, D. G., Steffens, D. C., & Busse, E. W. (eds.), Textbook of Geriatric Psychiatry, 3rd edn. American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, DC, pp. 139-61.

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