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60 is the new 60!

It has suddenly become trendy to be 60, with headlines across the world today proclaiming that 60 is the new 40.  

No – 60 is the new 60. 

I could write highlighting the significant inequalities in the mid-life and ageing experience – economically, socially and in mental and physical health – and at the end of this post I insert a graph from the UK Foresight Report on Ageing 2016 showing the large difference in both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy for men in England and Wales  at age 65 depending on their area of residence – but that’s at the end.  Let’s just celebrate the positive aspects of 60. 

Assessing wellbeing alongside other measures of health, economics etc has become routine over the past few years. The Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index Poll interviews 1,000 US adults every day about wellbeing,  the Office for National Statistics in the UK is considering such a study and  similar initiatives are taking place in other countries.

This is proving evidence of value to us as we age. For research consistently shows that well being follows a U-shape across life, until just before death (Van Landeghem 2012, Wunder et al, 2013). This has been observed in numerous  countries, and seems to apply across all socio-economic groups. For example, the Gallup World Poll, an ongoing survey in more than 160 countries, shows a U-shaped relationship between evaluative wellbeing and age with the lowest levels of wellbeing around ages 45-54.

There is also growing research literature suggesting that psychological wellbeing may even be a protective factor in health, reducing the risk of chronic physical illness and promoting longevity.

A recent study on English speaking countries (Steptoe et al 2014)  for example showed that personal life evaluation followed the U-pattern with a nadir in the mid-50s.  However, from then on a positive strand emerged.  In particular the occurrence of ‘a lot of stress’ or ‘a lot of anger’ and “worry” declined rapidly  after age 50. Indeed the paper reported that the frequency of negative emotions in general decreased  from mid-life onwards.  


Figure 1. Life evaluation and hedonics and age in wealthy English speaking countries

The Cantril ladder ranges from 0 (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible life), and the graph shows the average. The hedonic experiences are the fractions of each age group reporting that they experienced “a lot of” X in the previous day. Those aged 76 and above are excluded. The countries are United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. There are 13,762 observations for happiness, and a little less than 25,000 for the other measures. Means by age are first calculated for each country, and the regional average obtained by weighting by each country’s total population. Sample size is approximately proportional to the number of countries in the region. Happiness measures were not collected in all waves. 

Stone et al 2010 reports similarly for the US.

An increasingly accepted theory  emerging from these and other results is socio-emotional selectivity theory (Charles and Carstensen 2009 [1]), which suggests  that as we age we accumulate an emotional wisdom which  leads to selection of more emotionally satisfying events, friendships, and experiences. Thus, despite factors such as the death of loved ones, loss of status associated with retirement, deteriorating health and reduced income, older people maintain and even increase self-reported wellbeing by focusing on a more limited set of social contacts and experiences. These findings suggest that those over 60 may be more satisfied with their lives, and experience less stress, worry, and anger than do middle-aged people. Indeed it has long been recognised that well-being seems to be unaffected by the adverse contexts brought on by the ageing process (Mroczek and Kolarz, 1998).

A similar theory is the  selection, optimisation and compensation (SOC) model (Baltes and Baltes, 1990), which suggests that successful aging involves the selection of domains on which to focus one’s resources, optimizing developmental potential (maximization of gains) and compensating for losses – thus ensuring the maintenance of functioning and a minimization of losses.  Selecting realistic goals becomes important, and empirical evidence shows that focusing on a selected few life domains is particularly adaptive for those older people whose resources are highly constrained (Freund & Baltes, 2002).

Of particular interest however is a recent study by  Weiss et al. (2012) analysing the well-being of a sample of 508 great apes. The well-being of the apes was reported by zoo keepers, volunteers, researchers, and caretakers who had known the apes for at least two years. The results support a U-shape relation with minumums at around 30 years of age, comparable to human well-being minima of approximately 45-50 years. As the authors conclude, this highlights the intriguing possibility that “the U-shape found in human studies of age and well¬being evolved in the common ancestors of humans and nonhuman primates” (Weiss et al., 2012, p. 2).

Now for those inequalities…..

Figure 2. Healthy life expectancy (HLE) and life expectancy (LE) for men at age 65 by national deciles of area deprivation in England, 2012-2014.

However what is interesting from the above studies is that even those with less material goods and poorer health also reveal the U shape for well-being. 

There are clear inequalities in access to resources, leading to significant differences in health and life expectancy. And we are not only talking about the contrast between Madonna and nearly all the rest of us. However, the good news is that at least in the high income countries – life satisfaction  at 60 is on a high with still several years of increasing wellbeing ahead. 

Happy Birthday Madonna…..

Ulloa et al in Journal of Population Ageing provide an excellent overview of some of the empirical studies on the U-Shaped Relation.

One of the first attempts to examine this relation was Clark and Oswald’s (1994) study of a 1991 cross-section of the British Household Panel Survey and the General Health Questionnaire. The evidence indicates a U-shaped relation between both variables for both data sets, with a minimum life satisfaction reached around a person’s mid-30s. In a later study using the U.S. General Social Surveys, Oswald (1997) again found evidence of a U-shape with a minimum reached in the 30s.

Frey and Stutzer (2002), in their meta-analysis of the economic quality-of-life literature, found that the minimum level of life satisfaction is reached between an individual’s 30th and 35th year.

Deaton (2007, 2008) explored cross-sectional data from the 2006 Gallup World Poll to show that in very highest-income countries – including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand –  life satisfaction is U-shaped with age, falling at first and rising after middle age. Di Tella et al. (2001) used multiple regressions and cross-sections to confirm the U-shaped relation between age and reported well-being in developed countries. 

To counteract this criticism, researchers have tried to analyse the robustness of the U-shape in a longitudinal design using such longitudinal data sets as the German Socio-Economic Panel (since 1984) and the British Household Panel Survey (since 1991). In their 2006 study, Clark and Oswald tested the validity of the U-shaped relation using longitudinal data from the British Household Panel Survey and the British General Health Questionnaire. Their data sets ranged from 1991 to 2004 and covered over 100,000 individuals. After using fixed effects to control for individual heterogeneity, the authors confirmed the U-shaped relation between reported well­being and age with one difference from their previous findings in that minimum life satisfaction occurred in the mid-40s, not the mid-30s. Even after controlling for myriad variables they found consistent evidence for the U-shape, with a minimum reached between 40 and 49 years of age.

To determine whether this U-shaped relation reflects individuals’ reactions to typical events in the lifecycle or is due to unobserved cohort effects, Clark (2007) controlled for cohort effects using fixed-effects estimations in panel regressions on 14 waves of the British Household Panel Survey. Estimation with fixed effects still gave rise to a U-shape, although the curviture was not as pronounced.

Using panel data from 1996-2000 and 2002-2004 from the British Household Panel, a more recent study by McAdams et al. (2012) used an innovative approach that analyses eight individual domains of life satisfaction: health, income, housing, partnership, job, social life, amount of leisure time, and use of leisure time. Age trajectories diverged considerably across these domains, but in general, satisfaction with social life, housing, amount of leisure time and use of leisure time showed a U-shape pattern with age. When aggregating all eight domains, a pattern resembling the U-shape of overall life satisfaction also emerged. The authors concluded that “this pattern is consistent with the idea that people are constructing overall evaluative judgements in a more bottom-up fashion” (McAdams, 2012).

Blanchflower and Oswald (2008) tested the robustness of the U-shape using a set of dummy variables for each birth decade to account for cohort effects in a sample of over 500,000 individuals in America (U.S. General Social Surveys, 1972–2006) and Europe (Eurobarometer Surveys, 1976–2002; UK Labour Force Survey, 2004–2007). In the United States, once cohort effects were controlled for lowest life satisfaction was 52.9. In Europe, well-being reached a minimum at 46.5 with cohort effects. 

Blanchflower and Oswald also examined the relation between age and well-being (proxied by mental health) using only the UK Labour Force Survey and showed that depression and anxiety reaches a maximum around age 46.

When testing the robustness of the U-shape in developing countries, Blanchflower and Oswald (2008) found evidence that the curvilinear relationship seems to partially hold there as well. Using four waves of the World Values Survey, the Latinobarometers, and the Asiabarometers, they followed a similar methodology to that used for the American and European data. They found that “the U-shape seems to occur in the majority of nations,” which in their analysis totalled 72, but not in 20 developing countries, an outcome whose insignificance they attributed to the small sample sizes. 

[1] Charles, S. T., Carstensen, L. L. (2009) Socioemotional selectivity theory. In: Reis, H., Sprecher, S. (eds) Encyclopedia of human relationships, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, pp. 1578–1581.

About the Author

Sarah Harper CBE is Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford and Founding Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.

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