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People Over 65 are Less Prone to Apathy and Depression

HSE researchers identified the causes of psychological distress in the elderly


Assumption: It is generally believed that people feel worse, both physically and psychologically, the older they become.

In Fact: The degree of depression and apathy is higher between the ages of 50 and 65 than after 65. What’s more, apathy among those of pre-retirement age depends on subjective vitality — the sense of being full of life and energy.

Now, a Closer Look

HSE Department of Psychology researchers Alena Zolotareva, Polina Averina and Anastasia Timoshina studied the psychological well-being of people in two age groups — late middle age (50-65 years old) and the elderly (65 years old and older) — focusing on the nature of the relationship between apathy and such indicators of psychological well-being as the level of depression and subjective vitality. This is also the first empirical study of the relationship between apathy and subjective vitality in persons of retirement and pre-retirement age.

Subjective vitality refers to a feeling of being full of life and energy and is associated with the perception that people are themselves the ‘source’ of activity.

The study involved 188 respondents. The results showed that people over 65 are less prone to apathy and depression. Also, before this age, depression is a significant predictor of apathy and, conversely, the higher a person’s subjective vitality in the pre-retirement period of life, the lower his or her level of apathy.

This connection was not observed in people of the older age group. The researchers explained that this might be due to, among other things, such characteristics of older people as, for example, accumulated wisdom, as well as the characteristics of brain function in the elderly.

The study was supported by a Presidential grant providing state support to young Russian PhDs in the sciences. The results are published in the National Psychological Journal.

The Matter at Hand

Modern psychological research looks at old age from different viewpoints. Scientists have traditionally been interested in natural limitations such as the reduced physical and psychological capabilities of the second half of life. The elderly stop working when they retire, stop being children when their parents die, stop parenting when their children start their own families, become less physically and sexually active, and face the nearness and inevitability of death. At the same time, some of the psychological aspects of aging that apply only to the elderly can be positive. For example, the scientific literature describes the concept of effective aging, which is characterised by maintaining an active lifestyle, staying involved in everyday social activities and focused on internal convictions, and the desire to satisfy personal interests and needs.

In the course of their theoretical analysis, the authors of the new study concluded that the following are subjective factors of successful aging:

 successful social interaction;

 effective coping with traumatic life events;

 A flexible subjective age identity that implies a positive self-perception of age in terms of psychological, mental and physical health and the ability to view oneself as younger than one’s actual age.

As a result, people can age according to a positive or negative scenario, and according to scientists and psychologists, this is largely a function of their attitudes towards death. Thus, as Russian psychologist Elena Sapogova notes, in a negative scenario, an elderly person fears death and tries to stop thinking about it. But in a positive scenario, the person admits that he or she is tired of life and feels a sense of completion.

‘Psychological well-being in old age is largely dependent on emotional experiences’ the researchers noted. ‘These can either fill the elderly person with resources or devastate him and lead to apathy’.

Research has shown that apathy is one of the most common symptoms of old age. It manifests itself in a decrease or complete loss of motivation and, according to scientific data, occurs in 6%-49% of generally healthy elderly respondents, as well as in 14%-60% of elderly people with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

Apathy is a mental state characterised by a complete absence of emotions, drives and desires — a kind of ‘emotional-motivational paralysis’. Dysfunctional symptoms and conditions such as depression, anhedonia, feelings of hopelessness, social isolation, and emotional withdrawal often accompany apathy in older age.

The HSE researchers noted that, previously, psychologists studied only the negative but not the positive psychological characteristics that predict apathy in old age. The aim of their work was to study the psychological predictors of apathy in middle age and late adulthood. In addition to looking at depression and subjective vitality, this was the first study of such predictors as subjective experiences of happiness and satisfaction with life.

How Was the Study Conducted? 

The study involved 188 respondents aged 50 to 83 years — 52 men and 136 women. A link to the questionnaire was circulated through announcements on social networks and in Moscow medical clinics.

The subjects filled out a questionnaire with socio-demographic questions, as well as a number of methods to measure their levels of apathy, depression, subjective vitality, subjective happiness and satisfaction with life. The questionnaires also included methods that were specially designed for research in the field of gerentopsychology. Statistical data analysis methods were used to process the results.

What Was the Result? 

It turned out that people aged 50-65 experienced higher levels of depression and apathy, as well as subjective vitality and satisfaction with life. After the age of 65, indicators for apathy and depression were lower, while those for the subjective experience of happiness were higher.

‘In general, the decrease with age in both negative and positive psychological characteristics can be explained by the so-called “emotional paradox of the aging brain”’, the authors noted. They explain that this is a phenomenon — that has been confirmed through MRT-based studies — by which older people react with less emotion to negative situations, are more successful in ignoring emotional stimuli in general and, compared to younger people remember positive information more than negative input.

However, people over 65 experienced a greater subjective sense of happiness, which was also in line with previous studies. The relationship between age and the subjective experience of happiness is known to be a U-shaped curve, as was shown by recent work by U.S. economist David Blanchflower that was based on data from 500,000 respondents in 145 countries. His results show that subjective happiness levels are lowest at approximately 50 years of age — or more exactly, at 48. After that, this indicator gradually rises. These results are true for respondents from both developed and developing countries.

Like numerous previous studies, the authors’ research confirmed that depression is a universal positive predictor of apathy in middle and late adulthood. For example, foreign researchers have established that 74.5% of older people experience apathy as a symptom of depression.

Subjective vitality was also found to be a negative specific predictor of apathy in people under 65. In other words, the higher the level of subjective vitality, the lower the degree of apathy. higher the level of subjective vitality, the lower the degree of apathy. 

The authors noted that there is ample theoretical justification for such a pattern in the elderly. The characteristics of subjective vitality are in direct contrast to the phenomenological descriptions of apathy, which include the absence of emotional sensitivity and an inability to respond to positive and negative life circumstances.

Empirically, however, this connection in the context of adult psychology has not yet been studied. Therefore, the authors noted, this study might be the first to show that statistically, high vitality indicators are significantly predictive of low levels of apathy in middle age.

How Is this Useful?

The authors believe that the study’s findings can be used in Russian gerontopsychology when working with people suffering from symptoms of depression and a low level of subjective vitality. ‘Knowledge of the psychological predictors of apathy in adulthood and old age is the basis for therapeutic interventions aimed at developing psychological well-being as a main characteristic of effective aging’, the psychologists commented. However, further studies are needed to obtain an additional data set and confirm the connections found.


Authors of the study:
Polina Averina, Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Psychology; Intern Researcher with the HSE International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation
Anastasia Timoshina, 4th-year student at the HSE Department of Psychology
Author: Marina Selina, March 23, 2022