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Happiness gets better with age

Are you happy?

You have a better chance of answering yes if you are a middle-age white man who lives in the suburbs.

A new study from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that white men had the lowest score on a test that measures negative moods. Of the 44,000 adults in the sample, only 5.8 percent of the white men showed unhappiness, compared with 8.1 percent of white women, 10.7 percent of black men and 16.4 percent of black women.

Within the groups, the amount of education was a strong predictor of how happy you are, as well as living in the suburbs. More education _ which usually means a better job and more money _ is connected to fewer negative moods, the study shows.

"You're depressed for good reason," Bruce Jonas of the National Center for Health Statistics told the Chicago Tribune recently. "Without education you have more economic problems and other worries, and you don't have as many means to cope with those stresses."

There is some question about the gender difference. Are men happier than women or are women simply more likely to be honest about negative moods?

Another interesting tidbit from the study: As we age, negative moods decline. Those 45 years and older have a 20 percent lower rate of unhappiness than do younger groups.

Since many of us are getting older, perhaps that is the best news from this study.

At any rate...

There is always a problem when studies _ and newspaper articles based on them _ report a drop in the rate of something. An example last week comes from Duke University, where demographers found the rate of disability among older Americans has declined 15 percent between 1982 and 1994.

It sounds like good news. Fewer disabled people over age 65 might eventually translate into diminishing need for increases in the Medicare and Medicaid budgets. Such a statistic also may add support to the argument for raising the age for receiving full retirement benefits to 67 or older.

But look at the numbers more closely: In 1982, according to researcher Kenneth Manton, there were 6.4-million chronically disabled people among a population of 26.9-million over age 65. By 1994, there were 7.1-million disabled people among the 33-million people over age 65.

Using a formula, Manton calculated that the rate of disability was declining. He and his colleagues say that had the rate not declined, there would be 1-million more disabled older persons today.

Still, the actual number of disabled older adults increased 700,000, even though the rate of increase is lower than expected. That means there are hundreds of thousands of extra people seeking family or government help with long-term care needs.

With the number of people over age 65 expected to double by 2030, there will be millions more disabled adults needing help, even if the rate of disability continues to decline.

Something to consider next time you read a story about the rate of something declining.

Discovering other media

Osler's Web, a book on chronic fatigue syndrome by Hillary Johnson, is now in paperback (Penguin Books, $15.95). It's a comprehensive and much-praised look at the mysterious disease. (FYI: A study last week said increasing salt intake appears to help CFS sufferers, perhaps because low-salt diets aggravated their hypotension, or low blood pressure) ... Hey, America Online users: Has it gotten any easier to connect to AOL recently? What times are worst? E-mail me at the addresses below.

Compiled from wire reports and other sources. Contact John Cutter at the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Fax: (813) 892-2327; e-mail (text only, no attached files): or on America Online,