What the 45 and Up Study tells us about the mental health of older Australians

October is Mental Health Awareness Month in Australia. Many organisations working in this space are using the opportunity to promote awareness, foster conversations and galvanise support for initiatives to improve Australians’ mental wellbeing. Underpinning these initiatives is a wealth of research which tells us what factors are associated with poor mental health and what strategies we might try to avoid it.

Data from the Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study – a long-term project exploring healthy ageing in over a quarter of a million health older men and women from New South Wales – has proved to be a unique treasure trove for researchers looking at mental health in older Australians. Over 40 research papers have used the Study to explore a broad range of mental health issues in older people. This is a hitherto under-researched area, despite the recognised importance of mental wellbeing in healthy ageing. Here are a few of the key findings from the 45 and Up Study data so far:

Getting active

In a 2012 paper, researchers used 45 and Up Study data to explore the relationship between physical activity and mental health in men over the age of 65. They found a clear link between regular exercise and lower levels of psychological distress. Study participants who reported zero sessions of physical activity were the most likely to experience high or very high psychological distress. There was what researchers like to call a “dose-related response” in the findings – in other words, the more frequently people exercised, the less likely they were to suffer from psychological distress.

The take-home from this study that is if you want to keep poor mental health at bay, maintaining some kind of exercise routine is a good start, even as you hit your mid-sixties and beyond.

Trees are best

A study out earlier this year looked at data from 47,000 participants from the 45 and Up Study to explore whether living near green space is good for your mental health, and if so, what kind is the best. The researchers did find green space lowered the odds of poor mental health – but what really made the difference was being near plenty of trees. People living in areas with a lot of tree canopy were a third less likely to experience psychological distress compared with those who had little to no access to tree canopy.

The research has an important message for urban planners, the authors say: providing more tree canopy might be an effective way to support community health.

Psychological distress in Aboriginal people

A trailblazing study has looked at mental health in older First Australians, comparing findings from Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants in the 45 and Up Study. The researchers found markedly high levels of psychological distress in older Aboriginal people, compared with the non-Aboriginal participants. One-fifth of Aboriginals met the criteria for high psychological distress, which was more than twice the level for non-Aboriginals.

Poorer physical health – in particular chronic disease and disability – was a key contributor to poorer mental health in Aboriginal Australians, the researchers were able to show.

The findings have important public health implications. Far greater upstream efforts will be needed to lessen the burden of physical ill health and disability in older Aboriginal Australians if we are to improve their mental health, the researchers say.


About the 45 and Up Study

Established in 2004, the 45 and Up Study is one of the largest ongoing studies of healthy ageing in the world, involving more than a quarter of a million NSW men and women. The Study, managed by the Sax Institute, aims to provide a complete picture of health as people move from mid to later life, allowing governments and health policy makers to better plan health services and programs for our ageing population. Data from the Study has already been used in over 200 published research papers and is helping us to better understand the causes and outcomes of conditions such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, depression and obesity.