Historical Change in Midlife Health, Well-Being, and Despair: Cross-Cultural and Socioeconomic Comparisons

Frank J. Infurna, Omar E. Staben, Margie E. Lachman, Denis Gerstorf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Recent empirical evidence has documented that U.S. middle-aged adults today are reporting lower mental and physical health than same-aged peers several decades ago. Individuals who attained fewer years of education have been most vulnerable to these historical changes. One overarching question is whether this phenomenon is confined to the U.S. or whether it is transpiring across other high-income and upper-middle-income nations. To examine this question, we use nationally representative longitudinal panel data from 5 nations across different continents and cultural backgrounds (U.S., Australia, Germany, South Korea, and Mexico). Results revealed historical improvements in physical health for people in their 40s and early 50s across all five nations. Conversely, the direction of historical change in mental health vastly differed across nations. Later-born cohorts of U.S. middle-aged adults exhibit worsening mental health and cognition. Australian middle-aged adults also experienced worsening mental health with historical time. In contrast, historical improvements for mental health were observed in Germany, South Korea, and Mexico. For U.S. middle-aged adults, the protective effect of education diminished in later-born cohorts. Consistent across the other nations, individuals with fewer years of education were most vulnerable to historical declines or benefited the least from historical improvements. We discuss potential reasons underlying similarities and differences between the U.S.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)870-887
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Psychologist
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2021


  • Adult development
  • Cohort effects
  • Cross-cultural research
  • Growth curve modeling
  • Socioeconomic differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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