New research using NCDS highlights midlife mental health problems

Sad womanExperts using information from NCDS have published a new study highlighting midlife as difficult period for mental health.

What we asked you

When we’ve surveyed you, we’ve asked you questions designed to measure your mental health. Participants of two other studies, the 1970 British Cohort Study (born in 1970) and the National Survey of Health and Development (born in 1946) have answered similar questions at different ages throughout their lives.

What the researchers found

Researchers from the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies looked at patterns of mental health during adulthood. They found that among your generation, and those born in 1958, rates of mental ill-health had decreased from your early 20s to your early 30s. Poor mental health then increased for all three generations, including those born in 1946, from your early 30s to reach its highest levels in midlife (between the ages of 46 and 53).

The researchers found that for your generation, levels of mental ill-health decreased from 10% at age 23 to 8% at age 33, before rising to 13% at age 42 and to 15% at age 50. Rates of poor mental health followed a similar pattern for members of the other studies, reaching their highest levels in midlife: 19% at age 53 for those born in 1946, and 20% at age 46 for those born in 1970.

Across all three generations, at all ages, levels of mental ill-health were higher among women than men. At age 50, 19% of women of your generation had mental health problems compared to 11% of men.

Co-author, Professor George Ploubidis (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies) said: “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 ageing parents. The added pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic may therefore have a more pronounced detrimental effect on the mental health of middle-aged adults as many have increased responsibilities, such as home schooling their children and caring for older and vulnerable relatives.”

Why this research is important

Co-author, Dr Dawid Gondek (UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies) explained: “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.”

Find out more about this research

The full scientific paper was published in Psychological Medicine in January 2021.

These findings were covered in the media, including in the Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Herald and About Manchester.