Women’s Mental Health Shows Big Decline in Later Life

iStock_000006517280_LargeWomen enrolled in a study to help determine how their mental health changes with age showed a marked decrease in well-being later in life.Doctors, public health officials and researchers are well aware that women throughout the world have increased chances of developing certain mental health problems when compared to men. However, any given woman’s mental health-related risks don’t necessarily remain constant over the course of her lifetime. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Quality of Life Research, researchers from Australia’s University of Queensland used a well-known screening tool called the Short Form Health Survey (commonly referred to as SF-36) to help determine how women’s mental health typically changes with advancing age.

Women and Mental Health

Compared to men, women have substantially increased chances of developing a mental illness that falls into one of three categories, the World Health Organization reports. These categories of illness are depressive disorders (major depression, persistent depressive disorder, etc.), anxiety disorders (panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, etc.) and somatic symptom and related disorders (somatic symptom disorder, conversion disorder, etc.). Roughly 33 percent of the world’s adult population is affected by a mental health problem that falls into one of these areas. Women have particularly high chances of developing major depression; in comparison to a man, any given woman may also develop unusually tenacious forms of depression.

Several underlying factors appear to account for women’s gender-specific risks for mental illness. These factors include a relatively high rate of exposure to sexual assault and other forms of sex-related violence, a relative lack of earning power for women in most societies, the relatively low status for women in many societies and the stresses produced by women’s traditional roles as caretakers, household maintainers and maintainers of social communication. In many countries, doctors are quicker to diagnose certain forms of mental illness in women than in men, even when symptoms in the two genders do not differ.

Short Form Health Survey

The Short Form Health Survey was developed in the U.S. by the RAND Corporation. It gets its common nickname, SF-36, from its 36 questions. The SF-36 is designed to quickly assess a person’s mental and physical health. The mental health portion of the screening tool addresses four aspects of mental well-being, referred to as vitality, social functioning, role-emotional health and general mental health. Vitality addresses any given person’s energy level, while social functioning addresses the ability to perform in social environments. Role-emotional health addresses the ability to avoid emotional problems that interfere with work or other essential tasks, while general mental health addresses the individual’s overall mood and state of mind. A person with a high score on the mental health portion of the Short Form Health Survey typically has a high level of mental well-being, while a person with a low score typically has a low level of mental well-being.

Mental Health Changes Over Time

In the study published in Quality of Life Research, the University of Queensland researchers used data from a project called the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health to assess women’s changes in mental (and physical health) over time. This ongoing project uses the Short Form Health Survey to periodically measure the mental and physical health of women who fell into one of three age ranges when they first enrolled for participation: 18 to 23, 45 to 50 and 70 to 75. The researchers used a baseline version of SF-36 to assess the results gained from the Australian Longitudinal Study; they also used a corrected version of the questionnaire designed to address some of SF-36’s possible shortcomings as an accurate screening tool.

The researchers concluded that the overall mental well-being of the women enrolled in the Australian Longitudinal Study increased during early adulthood and reached a maximum level in middle age. After middle age, the women’s mental well-being began to decline substantially. Both the uncorrected and corrected versions of SF-36 reflected this rising and falling curve of women’s mental health over time. However, the researchers concluded, the corrected version of the questionnaire indicated a higher level of mental well-being for older women than the uncorrected version of the questionnaire.

The study’s authors separately concluded that women’s physical health is at its maximum level in early adulthood and gradually tapers off to lower and lower levels over time. They believe that the Short Form Health Survey is an effective method of gauging women’s mental and physical well-being, as long as researchers using the questionnaire make necessary corrections for accuracy.

Posted on February 10th, 2015

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