Education Protects Against Mental Illness In Midlife, But Its Effects Are Waning

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Key Takeaways

  • Middle-aged Americans experience greater mental illness than older generations or their European and Asian counterparts.
  • Americans between 40 and 65 report more depressive symptoms and worse memory recall than Americans had in the past.
  • Such findings highlight the need for greater investment in the physical and mental health of Americans.

The declining mental health of Americans is an ongoing issue, and a recent study published in the American Psychologist has found that the higher education protective factor that was associated with better mental health in midlife has been decreasing.

These findings were based on interviews with Americans every 2 years, which included questions about their social networks and their health.

While this research might seem disheartening, it may highlight how Americans are increasingly willing to discuss mental health challenges, which could ultimately lead to new solutions.

Understanding the Research

This study relied on datasets from the US, Australia, Germany, South Korea, and Mexico with information about the physical and mental health of middle-aged adults over time, and found that the physical health of adults in their 40s and early 50s improved across all five countries in the study.

Researchers found that middle-aged adults living in Germany, South Korea, and Mexico reported improved mental health in recent decades, but American and Australian adults currently in midlife reported greater depressive symptoms and worse memory than their older peers.

While education tends to protect people from depressive symptoms and memory challenges later in life, college-educated Americans born in the 1950s and 1960s reported worse memory recall than their older college-educated peers or their European and Asian adult counterparts.

Researchers note that this waning protective factor of education among Americans regarding depression and memory difficulties may relate to additional financial challenges at this time. A limitation of this research was its focus on countries with higher levels of income for comparison.

Aging Impacts Health

Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC, says, "Readers will take away an increased knowledge of how mental and physical health changes as we age."

Johnson highlights, "Mental and physical health has declined for those born in the 1950s and 1960s as opposed to those born in the 1930s and 1940s. When those born in the ’30s and ’40s were in their midlife, they had fewer reports of mental and physical decline."

It is worth noting how changes in the economy and lifestyles have evolved, according to Johnson. "The demand to make more money, have more things and the cost of those things have increased drastically," she says.

Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC

The public should consider how consumerism and capitalist beliefs impact these changes. Adults have to work longer and harder for the same lifestyle as those who were born in earlier decades.

— Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC

Johnson explains, "The public should consider how consumerism and capitalist beliefs impact these changes. Adults have to work longer and harder for the same lifestyle as those who were born in earlier decades."

Many clinicians are seeing an increase in middle-aged adults in therapy, according to Johnson. "They are reporting depression due to feeling like they were not able to accomplish their goals, alongside an increase of middle-aged adults being replaced in the workforce, which is often due to financial changes as well as changes in technology," she says. 

Many Factors Impact Mental Health

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP, says, “The takeaway that our readers should have is that the recipe for maintaining our mental and physical health involves many ingredients including having a higher education, a strong sense of connection to our family, community, and nation."

Weaver explains, "Many higher-educated, middle-aged people are experiencing mental health challenges as they balance career threats in the midst of COVID and our changing workforce structure while caring for their parents who are living longer and require medical and financial support along with their adult children who can’t afford to live on their own."

With an increase in individualism and a loss of social connection, Weaver notes that this can lead to people feeling isolated and alone in this experience. "I wish that the public would understand the neuroscience behind the concept of connection and emotional safety," she says.

Weaver highlights, "We feel disconnected when one is in a survival state, so it’s impossible to experience joy, to create new memories, to think straight, or to thrive in relationships, thus leading to an overall decline in mental health. That is how many people are feeling right now."

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP

Remembering who you are is more than the titles or what you do. You and the people in your life are what matters most. Make sure you create space for those things as well.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP

This is why Weaver recommends the importance of redefining one's value system regarding success. "The old belief system of going to school, getting a good job, and retiring with a gold watch and pension plan is no longer aligned with today’s society," she says.

Weaver explains, "The need for higher college-education and trade-school are both noteworthy paths to consider, along with remembering that a well-rounded life and maintaining good mental health includes cultivating relationships and spending quality time with loved ones."

In her clinical practice, Weaver notes how clients focus on achievements at work and school, but their personal relationships and family life suffer. "Developing a strategy for self-care and the care of parents and children can empower you and provide a sense of hope," she says.

Weaver recommends, "Remembering who you are is more than the titles or what you do. You and the people in your life are what matter most. Make sure you create space for those things as well."

What This Means For You

As this research study demonstrates, the mental health challenges of middle-aged Americans may be related to many factors. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, it may help to connect with a healthcare provider to access necessary support.

1 Source
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  1. Infurna FJ, Staben OE, Lachman ME, Gerstorf D. Historical change in midlife health, well-being, and despair: Cross-cultural and socioeconomic comparisonsAmerican Psychologist. 2021;76(6):870-887. doi:10.1037/amp0000817

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.