Research from the University of New South Wales has found that middle-aged Australians are more anxious and depressed than their elderly counterparts, turning on its head a prevailing myth about old age.

A study, by Dr Julian Trollor and Dr Tracy Anderson from the School of Psychiatry at UNSW, found that elderly participants (those aged 65 and above) reported a lower prevalence of psychiatric and anxiety disorders and had lower levels of psychological distress than middle-aged participants.

Elderly participants were also less likely to report having seen a health professional for a mental health problem in the prior 12 months.

The study was based on the Australian National Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey (NMHWS) and is the first detailed comparison of rates of mental disorder between middle aged and elderly groups from a population-based study. It was published recently in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry and in a special edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

It found that one in seven middle-aged participants experienced symptoms consistent with anxiety or affective disorder compared to one in 17 of the elderly.

"The overall impression from the survey is that elderly people are more psychologically healthy than their younger counterparts, and quite significantly so," Dr Trollor says.

Sex, marital status, education, employment and health were correlates of mental disorder in the survey as a whole, but few were significant in the elderly participants. Only physical health was a factor in mental well being in both middle-aged and elderly participants.

"Being female, separated or divorced, or having lost a job were significant factors for experiencing mental disorder for those in their middle-age. The elderly differed significantly in this regard," Dr Trollor says.

He says more work needs to be done to determine exactly what the determinants are of mental disorder in later life, given the paucity of demographic correlates. A new NMHWS now underway will provide more data to be released to researchers in 2008.

However, Dr Trollor says the latest findings give weight to the idea of psychological immunisation - the older we get the more resilient we become.

"Through repeated adverse experiences you learn to cope with adversity."

Media contact: Dr Julian Trollor, (02) 9382 3755 or 0412 118 959; Steve Offner, UNSW Media Office (02) 9385 1583 or 0424 580 208.