A recent post about centenarians’ causes of death received this succinct response: ‘Why on earth would you want to live to 100?‘
It was one illustration of the sense many people have that, after a certain age, life gets worse and worse – and then we die.
And in fairness it’s clear that while many of the centenarians we’ve seen are living active, engaged lives, many are not. It’s easy to view them from afar and conclude that they’re not happy. Now the UK Office of National Statistics has produced survey data looking at how our sense of well-being changes as we age and it provides some support to the pessimists.
It looks at four aspects of well-being: life satisfaction, the feeling that life is worthwhile, happiness and lack of anxiety.
Overall it shows that wellbeing follows a u-shaped curve, starting high in childhood, dipping in middle age and then rising again after 60. However it also suggests that wellbeing peaks at age 75 and then declines again. For three of the measures – life satisfaction, happiness and lack of anxiety – the decline is slow enough that even when people are over 90 they are still registering higher levels of wellbeing than those in middle age. But for the feeling that life is worthwhile the decline is steeper: people in their 90s feel that life is less worthwhile than at any stage of their lives.
The ONS suggests that the findings could relate to poor health and loneliness. That seems credible since health does decline with age, even if there is huge variation in the degree to which people 90+ experience it. And it’s also true that older people are more likely to be living alone once their partner, if they had one, has died.
So does all this apply to our centenarians? Do they also feel that life is becoming less worthwhile after they’ve hit 100? Well, while the data does suggest that trend, it’s possible that they might not, or at least not quite so much. For one thing, we know that centenarians are different: they tend to enjoy better health than people who die earlier – that is, of course, the main reason they get to 100. So, if the ONS is right in saying that declining health is the cause of declining wellbeing, it may apply less to 100-year-olds.
And there’s also evidence that 100-year-olds tend to look on the bright side anyway. This research suggests they may be more optimistic than older people generally. So even if health is beginning to take it toll, centenarians may not feel it affects their wellbeing quite so much.
That’s supported by this poll in the US which suggests that centenarians are, by and large, happy. In fact half of them say they wouldn’t change anything in their lives. And that’s a pretty high bar: if you can say that about your own life, you’re not doing so badly.