What if you could find a way to determine what the mental health of a 70-year-old woman would most likely look in 20 years' time, but also what could be done to best support her mental wellbeing?
In a world-first study, a group of researchers led by members of the Jean Hailes Research Unit (JHRU) at Monash has done just that, in a paper recently published in the international journal, Aging and Mental Health.
In the paper, titled Mental health trajectories among women in Australia as they age, the researchers not only identified three clear paths a woman's mental health can take from the age of 70, but what factors could support, improve, or jeopardise it.
Professor Jane Fisher of the JHRU said a strong standout from the research was that if a woman's life was difficult at 70, "it does not mean you should give up".
"We know there are things you can do to improve it," Prof Fisher said. "If you get to 70 and you are feeling confident, energetic and enthusiastic, you need to make sure that this is maintained. However, if you get to 70 and feel downcast, with little hope or optimism, it is important to realise that there is a lot of life left and there are things you can do to begin to improve it."
The research, funded by the Liptember Foundation, used data from the internationally recognised Australian Longitudinal Study of Women's Health (ALSWH).
Prof Fisher said some ALSWH data about the links between chronic illness and mental health issues had already been analysed and published. "But we were given access to unanalysed data about the positive aspects of mental health; life satisfaction, social participation, enthusiasm and level of energy," she said.
That their research so clearly uncovered three common pathways "was pretty striking", she says.
The research identified three mental health trajectories among women: stable high, stable low and declining:
STABLE HIGH (77%). The largest group was women who, at 70, had generally good mental health. They were more likely to be physically active, socially engaged and supported. They had access to good nutrition, experienced few recent adverse life events, had lower stress and were less likely to have a serious illness or disability or excessive caregiving responsibilities.
STABLE LOW (18.2%). At age 70, women in this group were far less likely to be physically active, had poorer nutrition, more recent adverse life events, less social support, more stress and more serious illness or disability.
DECLINE (4.8%). This group of women had very high life satisfaction, energy and enthusiasm at the age of 70-75, but that deteriorated rapidly over the next decade and did not recover.
Sadly, just one factor stood out as being responsible for the rapid deterioration of the 'decline' group – elder abuse.
Prof Fisher said all participants were asked questions about experiences of elder abuse, such as whether anyone close to them had tried to harm them recently, or made them do something they didn't want to do, if they were forced to stay in bed and told they were sick when they knew they weren't, or if people took things from them without their permission.
The ALSWH began in 1995 and has followed several groups of women through more than two decades of their lives, doing follow-up surveys about every three years.
The Liptember study focused on ALSWH's oldest group, born from 1921-26, and their mental health journey across six ALSWH surveys – from the age of about 70 until the end of their lives, or the age of 85-90.
Almost 12,500 women completed Survey One and there were still 4055 participants at Survey Six.
"So much of what you read and hear about the ageing population is of doom, that old people are a burden," said Dr Maggie Kirkman of the JHRU. "This need not be the case. We want to ensure that there is a good understanding of what women need as they age, so that they not only have a meaningful life, but also contribute to society."
General research around healthy ageing reinforces that staying physically active, aiming for a balanced diet and staying engaged with friends and family help keep us feeling vital, happy and part of the community.
The Jean Hailes mental wellbeing portal, 'Anxiety: learn, think, do' also has a range of useful resources for older women.
Prof Fisher and Dr Kirkman now want to learn from more older women across Australia what influences their mental health.
"We would like to learn from as diverse a range of older women as we can," said Dr Kirkman. "People from diverse cultural backgrounds, women who are single, or in same-sex relationships and so on."
To find out how to take part in this study, click here.