Using and interpreting mental health measures in the national social life, health, and aging project

Carolyn Payne, E. C. Hedberg, Michael Kozloski, William Dale, Martha K. McClintock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Introduction. National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP) included five unique mental health measures in Waves 1 and 2 that researchers can use to measure the overall emotional health of participants: depressive symptoms, happiness-unhappiness, anxiety symptoms, perceived stress, and felt loneliness. For each, we detail the rationale for its development and explain how to score, analyze, and interpret results. Method. NSHAP developed its measures by modifying traditional short-form scales to improve response efficiency and reduce respondent burden. Scoring protocols and interpretations were developed for each measure. U.S. population estimates for older adults born between 1920 and 1947 were generated using age-eligible samples from Waves 1 and 2. Results. NSHAP's protocols yielded U.S. prevalence rates similar to other nationally representative studies of older adults and comparable between waves. Higher estimates of anxiety symptoms and perceived stress in Wave 2 compared with Wave 1 were explained by age, administration mode, and time period. Analytic strategies for longitudinal analyses are provided. In Wave 2, mental health generally was worse at older ages, with women having more symptoms at younger ages than men. Women had fewer anxiety symptoms at the oldest ages. Discussion. NSHAP's mental health measures were successfully integrated into the project's survey and showed acceptable external reliability as well as moderately stable individual characteristics across the 5 years between Waves 1 and 2. Depressive symptoms and unhappiness may form a mental health cluster in the elderly, distinct from anxiety symptoms, perceived stress, and felt loneliness. Gender differences in age-specific patterns of mental health were evident using the exact age of participants rather than the traditional decade groupings. Administration mode and time period (between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011) were determined to be potential confounds that need to be accommodated in longitudinal analyses of aging, whereas sample composition was not an issue for interpreting mental health measures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S99-S116
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
StatePublished - Nov 1 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Anxiety
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Emotion
  • Loneliness
  • Mental health
  • Stress
  • Unhappiness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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