Midlife crisis: 1 in 5 adults face mental health problems by middle age

LONDON — Despite mental health experts focusing on the stress facing adolescents and the elderly, especially during COVID-19, a new study finds the “midlife crisis” may be more of a problem than many think. Researchers at University College London say one in five people face mental health problems by the time they reach middle age.

Study authors say a review of more than 28,000 adults over the last four decades reveals Baby Boomers and Generation X face the highest risk of poor mental health once they reach their 40’s. Twenty percent of participants born in 1970, part of Generation X, experienced high levels of psychological distress in middle age. Another 19 percent of Baby Boomers born in 1946 and 15 percent of that generation born in 1958 suffered from the same ailments.

Researchers examined mental health reports from three British studies on people between 23 and 69 years-old; comparing how different generations in history have been affected by depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress.

Growing up is no fun, especially for mental health

Researchers find that adults born between 1958 and 1970 generally saw their mental health get better in their late 20’s, before a steady decline as they got older. The study notes that the highest levels of psychological distress come between ages 46 and 53.

For adults from 1970, about 16 percent report dealing with mental health issues at age 26. That number drops to 14 percent by age 30. However, mental health issues quickly rise again, to 19 percent by age 42 and 20 percent by age 46.

Baby Boomers from 1958 see a similar curve in their levels of distress, falling from 10 percent at age 23 to just eight percent when they’re 33 years-old. Again however, 13 percent of these boomers face mental health challenges by age 42 and 15 percent deal with them at age 50.

For older Baby Boomers from 1948, the study finds there was no dip in their 20’s and 30’s. Instead, mental health issues continued to rise from six percent of this group at age 36 to 19 percent by age 53.

What makes middle age so difficult to deal with?

Researchers suspect that this particular phase of life can be exceedingly stressful, thanks to a number of family and professional changes in a person’s life.

“Midlife tends to involve a ‘peak’ in career, with middle-aged adults acquiring increasing responsibility as the ‘decision-makers’ in society, which is accompanied by reduced leisure time, and elevated job-related stress. Middle age is also often associated with changes to family structure, which may be linked with mental health, such as empty nest syndrome and rising rates of divorce. As people approach their 50s, they are also more likely to be parents and simultaneously care for aging parents,” study co-author Professor George Ploubidis explains in a university release.

“Generation X were more likely to have psychological distress than the Baby Boomers across their lives. They entered the job market in the late 1980s and early 1990s during a period of recession and high unemployment, and also found it more difficult than earlier generations to get on the housing ladder. As a result, these particular circumstances may have had a lasting effect on the mental health of this generation throughout adulthood.”

Researchers find that psychological distress tends to decline once a person reaches their 60’s. The levels of mental illness decreased from 18 percent between ages 60-64 to 15 percent at age 69 during the study.

Mid-life is also tougher on women

The study also reveals more women tend to report mental health issues during middle age than men. For Generation X participants, 23 percent of women had mental health problems compared to 17 percent of men. Those results were similar for male and female Baby Boomers as well.

“Mental health in adolescence and older age tends to gain much more attention than psychological distress in middle age, despite adults being particularly vulnerable to mental ill-health at this stage of life. Our study suggests that increased attention should be paid to the detection and management of mental health in middle age, for instance in primary care. It also implies the need for increased public awareness of psychological problems during midlife,” study co-author Dr. Dawid Gondek concludes.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Medicine.

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