In an aging world, we must invest in older adults’ mental health

As the world’s population ages, we must take a comprehensive approach to supporting the mental health of older adults. With depression affecting approximately 1 in 4 older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the prevalence varying significantly across countries, there is a pressing need for a multifaceted approach to tackle this growing public health concern. 

A recent study that we coauthored, published in the Milbank Quarterly, sheds light on the importance of societal factors in shaping depression risk among older adults in 20 developed countries, including the U.S. This groundbreaking study found that countries with more comprehensive approaches to supporting older adults had lower depression prevalence rates. This highlights the need for policies that improve societal systems for aging and the largely overlooked role of society in shaping depression risk among older adults.

To measure societal adaptation, we leveraged the Aging Society Index, an established measure of how well a society is adapting to the aging of its population, which identified relevant indicators in five key areas: productivity, equity, cohesion, security and well-being. The index provides a crucial tool for understanding how societies can better support and empower their aging populations and identifying areas where countries can improve their policies and programs for older adults. Investing in societal adaptation to aging is critical, as it promotes health and well-being and reduces depression prevalence rates in older adults.

This research has important policy implications for countries such as the United States facing aging populations. In the U.S., 1 in 5 are expected to be over 65 by 2040, an increase from 1 in 8 over 65 in 2000. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, there will be 1.4 billion across the globe 60 and older and by 2050, the figure will reach 2.1 billion. 

As the world’s population continues to age, it is crucial that countries prioritize the adoption of policies and programs that support and empower older adults. One such policy is a multiple-tier retirement income system, which has been shown to significantly reduce poverty among older adults and improve their economic security. The World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities is another initiative that can improve the mental health of older adults by making cities more livable and accessible. The Department of Labor’s Senior Community Service Employment Program provides job training and employment opportunities for older adults, which can help improve their sense of purpose and overall well-being. 

Evidence-based health programs, such as the AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, can help older adults improve their mental health through a sense of purpose and social engagement, as well as better management and treatment of chronic conditions. Finally, caregiver support programs can provide resources and support to family members who care for older adults, reducing their burden and improving their well-being. By prioritizing evidence-based policies and programs such as these, countries can take significant steps to improve the mental health of their aging populations.

Investing in societal adaptation to aging is a promising approach for supporting and empowering older adults, and evidence suggests that such policies and programs can positively impact their mental health. While there is still much to learn about the causal relationships between depression and aging, taking action to prioritize the mental health of our older adults is crucial for promoting their well-being and happiness. 

Enacting new policies and programs to support aging populations will take considerable political action and cooperation from all parties involved, but improvements are well worth the effort and may offer a cost-effective strategy to broadly improve older adult mental health. 

We must take action to support the mental health of our growing aging populations, and this study shows that investing in societal adaptation to aging is a vital step in that direction.

Esteban Calvo is an adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center and Dean of Social Sciences and Arts at Universidad Mayor, Chile. John W. Rowe is the Julius B Richmond Professor of Health Policy at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Robin A. Richardson is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.

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