Individual and Social Change in Mental Health: A Life Course and Cross-Cohort Study in Germany

Jos van Leeuwen , European University Institute
Liliya L. Leopold , University of Amsterdam

This study examines individual change with age and social change across cohorts in different dimensions of mental health and diagnosed depression. We use longitudinal data from the German Socio-Economic Panel on general mental health and four of its subdimensions (mental wellbeing, social functioning, emotional functioning, and vitality) as assessed by the SF-12 instrument (N=86,921 person-years, 2002 to 2018) and a measure of self-reported diagnosed depression (N=52,870 person-years, 2009 to 2017). The data come from respondents aged 18 to 78 and born between 1940 and 2000. Hierarchical growth curve models showed that age patterns varied substantially across dimensions of mental health. Mental wellbeing improved throughout most of the adult life course but worsened in old age. In contrast, the prevalence of diagnosed depression was lower in early adulthood and in old age than in mid-adulthood. Social functioning, emotional functioning, and vitality declined moderately with age. Mental health was worse for women than for men in each mental health measure and across the age span. Mental health improved across cohorts on most sub-dimensions of general mental health. In contrast, diagnoses of depression became more prevalent in more recent cohorts. These results suggest that life-course and cohort patterns in mental health take different shapes across dimensions of mental health, possibly reflecting differences in underlying mechanisms. Moreover, a rise in diagnosed mental diseases may not imply a decline in the general mental health of a population.

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 Presented in Session 71. Flash Session: Inequalities in Life Expectancy, Disability and Health