Researchers at the University of Chicago say that old age may be the prime of life for Americans. But is this true the world over?
Older, wiser and happier too
Teresa Godlewska says she's never been happier. The 77-year-old finally has the job she always wanted - working in an art gallery - and plenty of friends. After more than three decades in the UAE, the Polish resident of Dubai still loves the Gulf and the "respect" that older people receive here. "I'm extremely healthy. I love my job and I love the Emirates. When I look at younger people, they are miserable. They don't know how to be happy," she says.
"I think that maybe they see the richness of the world and they are not able to have it, and they cannot get over it. They cannot just be happy with what they have." Ms Godlewska's happiness supports recent finding by US researchers: older people may have more health problems, but they also worry less about relationships, are more secure financially and suffer less from crime. The results, published in the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, which has questioned more than 50,000 randomly selected adults on various subjects, including their happiness levels, since 1972.
It is just as well if being old is more enjoyable than being young, since people are living longer and life expectancies are expected to continue to rise. The UK's Office for National Statistics reports, for example, that from 1981 to 2005 the life expectancy at birth of boys increased by 6.1 years and of girls by 4.5 years. However, according to Sir John Grimley Evans, professor emeritus of clinical gerontology at Green College at the University of Oxford, how much someone enjoys old age is "a bit culture dependent and a bit class dependent".
The findings in the US, he suspects, would not be replicated throughout the world. However, since other countries have tended not to carry out research as comprehensive as the University of Chicago's study, comparisons are hard to make. "America is ageing in a particularly good pattern. For the last 20 years they've been living longer because they're healthier and people are richer, so there's less anxiety about poverty and old age," he says.
"It depends on anxieties about health and money and the US is on a winning streak for both. If however you live in a culture where pensions are inadequate and all you have is a pension, there's anxiety." An important factor in golden age happiness is education; those with more schooling tend to be more content. Partly, this is because the well-educated tend to be wealthier, but Sir John insists it goes beyond this.
Education, he says, means people "live more sensibly". "They know how to make the best of available resources and they know how to make their environment less challenging," he says. For example, they can move into a smaller house before they are forced to because of a crisis, or they can relocate to be closer to their children or to be within walking distance of shops. However, some of the good things about getting older are shared by nearly everyone, according to Sir John, who is himself 71.
"People are relieved of a lot of the stresses that make life difficult," he says. "Thirty or 40 years ago I had a hell of a demanding job. "There was a lot more stress in my life. Now I'm enjoying retirement, finishing off research and working at a much easier pace." Older people are more likely to be in stable relationships, with surveys showing that satisfaction with marriage increases in people in their late 50s.
People tend to be in settled relationships and so are less likely to experience the emotional roller coaster that characterises life with a series of partners. This "is a source of great contentment", Sir John says. On the other hand, the death of a spouse or partner is a common source of unhappiness and one much less likely to afflict the young. "There used to be a theory that older people were more likely to be depressed, but if you take out bereavement, I don't think that's the case," he says.
The ideal situation, according to Sir John, is to live longer and die faster - what is called the "compression of morbidity". Rather than spend years being kept alive through a debilitating chronic illness, people should try to remain in good health for longer through exercise, a good diet and not smoking. "It is achieved less through medical means. It works by delaying the onset of unpleasantness. It is possible to live longer and be happy and healthy," he says.
Some like to continue working, although Sir John says such individuals should consider something new, rather than cling to the same job. "Then you become a nuisance, blocking at the top of the tree. You need to think about moving sideways or starting something new," he says. "Quite a lot of people in Oxford finish their academic lives and take up continuing education - it is something where they have to think."
Nevertheless, some of the factors that determine the quality of our lives in old age are outside our control and the people who have to take the right decisions are politicians. With "good economic and social policies", Sir John says, the happiness levels found in the US could be replicated worldwide. Countries such as the Netherlands and those in Scandinavia seem to be on the right track, he says, but others, including the UK, could be hitting the buffers.
"We haven't got our pension system sorted out. I am seriously worried about what people who retire in 20 years' time are going to live on." Not all clinicians believe that happiness is an age or wealth-related phenomenon, though. Dr Naresh Dhar, a psychiatrist at the Prime Medical Centre in Dubai takes the view that "those who are happy, are happy from the beginning. Those who are the worrying kind keep on worrying", he says. "That is the personality you have. There are people who are happy-go-lucky - they just enjoy life whatever".