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The U-curve of happiness: Why old age is a time of psychological bliss

Here's why many 80 year olds are probably happier than you.

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: There are lots of legitimate reasons to worry about getting older, like getting sick and running out of money, ending up alone. Those fears are legitimate and real. But the thing is, we need to think about how the culture in which we age shapes those experiences. I'm not a Pollyanna about aging. I'm sort of in the 'both sides of the story' business. We hear only the downside. And we hear very little about all the positive aspects of aging, which are that we grow more confident, we grow happier.

When I started thinking about all this, my view of old age was unrelievedly grim. And one of the things I stumbled upon really early was the U-curve of happiness. And when I first encountered it, seriously I thought they must have cornered two 80 year olds, and given them a cookie, and said 'How are you doing?' The U-curve shows that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of our lives, that midlife, the famous midlife crisis, is indeed the trough of our satisfaction. And this is true for a couple of reasons. Midlife is the time of life when typically we have maximum family responsibilities. We're supposed to be crushing it in our careers. We may have responsibility for people both older and younger than us. And it's also the time of life where we realize, gee, I may not become a ballerina, I may not hike Mt. Everest. And those are sobering reflections, that maybe now, you're at a turning point, and there's more road behind you than ahead.

But something happens as we get older, especially up into our 80s. And it is the exact opposite of an ageist thought that I started out with. I thought, well, obviously, everything about getting older is going to suck. And one of the things that clearly sucks about it is the proximity to death. I envisioned, I literally envisioned the shadow of the grim reaper stretching over this sad iron bedstead. The awareness that time is short does not fill people with dread. It doesn't work that way neurologically. That was another assumption of mine. The knowledge that time is short helps people live in the moment, because they are more conscious about what they want to do with their time and who they want to spend it with. Kids live in the moment because they aren't neurologically equipped to do anything else. And olders do it because precisely they are aware that time is short and they want to make the most of the remaining time. It's why the older people are, the less they worry about dying. They don't want to die. And they especially don't want to die in pain. But they don't worry about it. And they think younger people worry too much about both the dying and the getting there.

  • The U-curve of happiness shows that we humans are most content at the beginnings and ends of our lives.
  • The famous midlife crisis is the trough of our happiness because it's a time when we have responsibility for people older and younger than us, and we grow aware that we may not fulfill the dreams of our youth.
  • Children and people in their 80s are uniquely able to live in the moment and be happy because they live at a neurological and psychological sweet spot, respectively.



A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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