Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Unhappiness, health and cognitive ability in old age

P. Rabbitta1a2 c1, M. Lunna3, S. Ibrahima4, M. Cobaina5 and L. McInnesa6

a1 Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

a2 Department of Psychology, University of Western Australia, Nedlands, WA, Australia

a3 Department of Statistics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

a4 Medical School, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

a5 Department of Psychology, University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

a6 Unilever PLC Research and Development, Colworth House, Sharnbrook, Bedford, UK


Background To test whether scores on depression inventories on entry to a longitudinal study predict mental ability over the next 4–16 years.

Method Associations between scores on the Beck Depression Inventory and on tests of intelligence, vocabulary and memory were analysed in 5070 volunteers aged 49–93 years after differences in prescribed drug consumption, death and drop-out, sex, socio-economic advantage and recruitment cohort effects had also been considered.

Results On all cognitive tasks Beck scores on entry, even in the range 0–7 indicating differences in above average contentment, affected overall levels of cognitive performance but not rates of age-related cognitive decline suggesting effects of differences in life satisfaction rather than in depression.

Conclusions A new finding is that, in old age, increments in life satisfaction are associated with better cognitive performance. Implications for interpreting associations between depression inventory scores and cognitive performance in elderly samples are discussed.

(Received August 07 2006)

(Revised June 18 2007)

(Accepted September 11 2007)

(Online publication November 08 2007)


c1 Address for correspondence: Professor P. Rabbitt, Department of Psychology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD, UK. (Email: