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For young people time seems to span infinitely to the future. Years pass and suddenly we realize that the number of years remaining is limited. This realization that one is now old can be traumatic. The attitude we take about aging will be very important in affecting the success with which we age.

This section provides a brief overview of the psychology of aging and includes such topics as information processing, cognition, intelligence, personality, and life satisfaction. (Specific issues in mental health such as dementia and depression are addressed in Chapters 13 and 15.)

Psychologic characteristics of aging have a strong genetic component. A longitudinal study of aging human twins shows that identical twins have a greater similarity in cognitive performance than do nonidentical twins.

Men and women differ biologically in both obvious and subtle ways that affect their physical, psychologic, and social experience of aging. From the time of birth, differing sexual characteristics, such as men's generally greater physical strength and women's ability to bear offspring, have a profound influence on roles and behavior.

One obvious difference between the sexes is the greater longevity of the female, which is characteristic of most species. For us, this trait has psychologic and social implications since reduced numbers and proportions of aging men mean that aging is predominantly the experience of women. Women in our society usually marry men who are older than they are and, consequently, widowhood is common. Older women are most often called upon to make the psychologic adjustments to greater independence at a time that is often marked by less functional capabilities and consequent dependence on others for daily functioning and support.

Changes in Learning and Memory as We Age

Changes in mental function are perhaps the most feared aspect of aging. Significant mental impairment threatens our lives and our independence since we use our brains to perceive and act on risks in the environment. For most of us this fear of becoming mentally incompetent is groundless. Much harm results from the mistaken assumption that all mental functions decline with age. We begin to believe the stereotype, which encourages us to withdraw and lose our self-esteem. Mental function does not have to decline; the capacity to learn continues through life.

There are three phases of information processing--getting information into the system, keeping it in, and getting it out again. These may be referred to as encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Encoding New Information

As we age, we require more time and effort than younger people to encode an equivalent amount of new information. The reason for this is not known. However, it seems likely that changes in our vision, hearing, and other senses place barriers that reduce our memory efficiency. Optimal learning for us involves reading or following instructions on how to organize information, finding tasks meaningful and rewarding, and being able to link the visual information with auditory information. At best, sensory memory lasts much less than a second, and because of sensory changes that occur with aging, we are at a disadvantage at this first stage of information processing. Short-term memory only lasts a few seconds and declines with increasing age.

Storage and Retrieval

Recall and recognition are two types of memory tasks. Recall involves search and retrieval of information from storage. Recognition involves matching information in storage with information in the environment. Several studies have shown that for all ages recognition is superior to recall and that recall worsens over time. Little decline is noted in recognition.

Long-term memory (what most of us mean by the word memory) is said to decline as we age but perhaps only as a result of poorer encoding (getting information into the memory system). Very longterm memory, spanning months or years, is defined as information that is relatively permanent, acquired during a lifetime of education and day-to-day experience. This type of memory increases from the age of 20 to about the age of 50 and then remains relatively constant until well after we turn 70.

Most of us learn to adapt to changes, often by such compensatory behaviors as slowing down movements, increasing the rehearsal of elements to be committed to memory, or avoiding unfamiliar environments. As a result, a particular deficit may not even be noticed until a new challenge occurs, such as a move out of familiar surroundings or the death of a spouse.


Whether intelligence declines as we age remains a hotly debated topic. We may do less well than younger people on standard intelligence tests; however, when an individual is studied over a long time, little decline is seen. The results of verbal tests, such as measuring information retention, vocabulary, and comprehension, remain fairly steady. Tests of performance, in which, for example, the speed of copying a picture is measured, show decline with increasing age.

Traditional intelligence tests are probably not appropriate to measure intellectual functioning in older adults. First, the fact that speed of response is usually given great weight in these tests puts older people at a disadvantage. As we age we tend to be more cautious and more unwilling than younger people to make a mistake in judgment. In real-life situations, such caution has survival value, but in experimental settings it may bias psychological-test results in favor of younger people, making us appear slower and apparently unable to respond to test items. This makes it difficult to interpret studies examining psychological aspects of aging.

The Speed of Processing Information

The times needed by healthy adults to react to a physical stimulus, particularly with respect to cardiovascular function, are faster than those of less healthy adults of similar age. Furthermore, our reaction times are quicker when we engage in regular physical activity. In fact, there are many healthy, physically fit elderly adults whose response times do not differ from those of less healthy, inactive younger adults.

As we age we tend to process sensory information at a slower pace than when we were younger. Slowing outside the brain accounts for about 5 percent of this loss; 95 percent is due to changes in our nervous system. In addition, it takes longer to perceive a stimulus.

While we tend to be slower in performing simple cognitive tasks, we are even slower when the responses are more complicated. When an event is a surprise, we are particularly slow to respond. In addition, as we age we value accuracy, and therefore tend to be slower but more accurate in our responses.

Another criticism of most intelligence tests is how relevant are the tests in our daily lives. For example, on a test dealing with practical information items, including the use of a telephone directory, elderly adults score better than younger adults, even when they had scored less well on conventional tests.

Most of us continue to gain rather than decline in our ability to manage our daily affairs; it is usually only in time of stress or loss that our mechanisms may be pushed beyond their limits. At that point, social support represents an important external compensatory mechanism. In the ideal, we receive support, care, respect, and status and a sense of purpose by interacting with younger people. In turn we can provide cultural meaning, stability, and a continuity with the past. Meaningful participation in family and community activities is a major source of personal satisfaction and is the product of cultural attitudes and decisions made earlier in life.

Life Satisfaction

Life satisfaction relates to subjective well-being, which in turn is strongly associated with health, socioeconomic factors such as income, and the degree of social interaction. When these variables are factored out, there is no correlation between the level of well-being and age or gender. Moreover, life satisfaction may be a relatively stable personality characteristic that is most associated with our previous sense of life satisfaction. Predictors of life satisfaction in older age may be different for men than they are for women. In one study, older men and women who had been interviewed about psychosocial issues 40 to 50 years earlier, when they were young parents, were reinterviewed. For the men in the study, the strongest predictors of life satisfaction were their wives' emotional characteristics as well as their own emotional and physical well-being. For the women, life satisfaction was most strongly associated with the amount of income and leisure time they enjoyed rather than with their husbands' personality.

Overall, except for extremely old people, life satisfaction does not seem to decrease with aging, despite age-associated events such as poorer health, reduced financial resources, widowhood, loss of friends, and reduced activity.

People tend to adapt to changing situations--pleasant or unpleasant--if the situations themselves cannot be changed. Since aging is a normal part of our developmental process, it is not surprising that we adapt to most of the physical, mental, and social changes. Role shifts that occur when we expect them to are less stressful than those that happen unexpectedly. For example, women who are widowed during old age experience less stress than those who are widowed during midlife. Many people, not taking this mechanism of adaptation into account, have mistakenly viewed the conditions of old age from the perspective of a youthoriented society.

Stress is the body's response to a demand, and inordinate stress is associated with a variety of psychological and physical states, including anxiety, headaches, and ulcers among others. Causes of stress have been found to vary depending on one's age group. Elderly people have generally reported that they experience less stress than younger people. The comparative lack of stress in the older age group seems to be due to the lesser importance that older people attach to particular stimuli. For example, in one study both older and younger women expressed low satisfaction with social relationships but for the younger women these social relationships were very important whereas they were considered much less important by the older women. Thus, the younger women had higher expectations that were often not satisfactorily met, and the older women had either achieved their valued expectations or had placed less importance on attaining them.

As most of us are aware, there are healthy coping responses to stress, such as exercise or meditation, and there are unhealthy ones, such as overeating or substance abuse. However, coping responses also vary with age. In one study it was found that younger women relied on talking, rest and relaxation, and isolation to relieve stress, whereas elderly women used work, religion, and ignoring the problem.

Personal Control

Our ability to manipulate aspects of our environment represents personal control. Loss of this control can result in helplessness. Depression, or lack of motivation and even some cognitive deficits, may be manifestations of learned helplessness. In addition, passiveness and helplessness are the effects of repeated failures to control, escape, or avoid events. Even positive events that cannot be controlled may result in feelings of helplessness and depression. The explanation people give for an uncontrollable bad event may indicate the extent of their sense of helplessness or depression. For example, if they explain events in global terms such as "This always happens to me," "I can't do anything right," and "It's all my fault," then they are more likely to experience hopelessness and depression than if they explain events in event-specific terms.

Loss of perceived control often accompanies our aging experience, particularly in situations of disability. Feelings of helplessness, which are commonly experienced as we age, can produce adverse reactions and may contribute to early death. Our ability to predict events may be a form of control in that it allows us to adapt to the situation. In a study that involved nursing-home residents, members of the experimental nursing home were encouraged to take responsibility for themselves, were given the opportunity to care for a plant, and were also invited to participate in a residents' council. Patients in the control nursing home received no such interventions. The consequences of the intervention were significant reductions in hopelessness, increases in activity, and positive changes in behavior for the experimental group.

The acceptance of limits and a finite future is a quality of maturity, not a matter of resignation or defeat. With years of rich experience and reflection, some of us can transcend our own circumstances. We call this ability to see the truth in the light of the moment, wisdom. So as we age in creativity, in deepening wisdom and sensibility we become more, not less. And we realize that aging confronts us with the tension between ourselves now and ourselves in the future. We have an enormous amount of choice regarding our own aging. What are we sowing, and what is it we wish to reap?

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