Background. To test the hypothesis that the prevalence, in the general population, of symptoms of depression and anxiety declines with age.
Methods. A general population sample of 2725 persons aged 18 to 79 years was administered two inventories for current symptoms of depression and anxiety, together with measures of neuroticism and of exposures that may confer increased risk of such symptoms.
Results. Symptoms of depression showed a decline with age in both men and women. For anxiety, the decline was statistically significant for women but not consistently so for men. For the risk factors examined, there was a decline with age in the neuroticism score, the frequency of adverse life events, being seriously short of money and having had parents who separated or divorced. Further analysis showed that the association between age and a declining symptom score cannot be entirely attributed to these risk factors, with the single exception of neuroticism. The latter is itself likely to be contaminated by current symptoms.
Conclusion. Unless these findings are due to bias in the sample of those who agreed to participate, they add to the evidence that symptoms of depression and to a lesser extent of anxiety decline in prevalence with age. Some risk factors also decline with age. It now has to be determined if these cross-sectional observations are also to be found in longitudinal data; and what process may underlie this striking change in mental health during adulthood.
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