Growing Old: Psychological Aging
The physiological changes that are part of the aging process are often accompanied by behavioral and psychological changes. Most notably are declines in perception, memory, understanding, reasoning, and other cognitive abilities with old age. Because of the mental deterioration that occurs in some older adults, the erroneous conclusion can be reached that all older adults suffer from a reduction in cognitive abilities. However, although some memory may be lost, not all memory or even all types of memory are. In addition, research has shown that although the intelligence required for puzzle solving may decline in later years, other types of intelligence do not and older adults can continue to learn. Other problems associated with older adults include dementia, Alzheimer's disease, late life depression, and issues related to reconciling oneself with death and dying.
Keywords Ageism; Alzheimer's Disease; Cognitive Ability; Dementia; Marginalization; Neuron
In many ways, the physiological effects of the aging process are most noticeable as the hair thins and turns gray (or disappears completely), reaction times slow, and the senses dim. However, aging is not only a process of the body: it is also a process of the mind. In many ways, these changes can be even more disturbing if memories fade and depression sets in. Not all psychological symptoms associated with old age occur in every person, just as not all psychopathology occurs in every younger person. There are, however, a number of common emotional problems, psychiatric disorders, and decreases in cognitive abilities that are commonly associated with the aging process.
A Natural Slow Down
The physical changes that accompany the aging process can not only bring about changes in one's appearance and physical abilities, but behavioral and psychological changes as well. Although the brain ages long before obvious symptoms occur, there is little decline in cognitive abilities until late adulthood (i.e., over 65 years of age). Before that age, most older people think as quickly and are just as alert as younger people. Further, the young old may actually have improved cognitive abilities because in many situations they have a greater wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon than do younger people (e.g., experienced teachers being better able to handle classroom disciplinary problems than novice teachers; experienced lawyers seeing the implications of a law or better understanding precedents than their less experienced colleagues). Eventually, however, there may be a decline in some mental abilities in some older people. These declines typically occur in cognitive abilities required for novel situations or that require rapid and flexible manipulation of ideas, symbols, and data as opposed to performing tasks that they have routinely performed for years. Physiologically, the aging process also brings about changes in the brain: neural processing is slowed and information needs longer times to be processed; resulting in longer reaction times and longer times needed to solve perceptual puzzles, perform complex tasks, or even to remember names.
Often, these changes do not cause severe problems or interfere with daily activities. Research has found, for example, that memory problems in older adults typically are episodic in nature (e.g., the inability to remember what they had for breakfast) rather than semantic (e.g., the inability to remember general information). In fact, for most people, competency in everyday tasks requiring verbal processes is unlikely to be affected until well into old age. Further, older people who are healthy and psychologically flexible; have a high level of education, income, and occupation; and live in a stimulating intellectual and social environment are less likely to experience cognitive decline than are those elders who do not. In addition, research has found that continuing to exercise one's cognitive abilities in old age (e.g., doing puzzles, painting, having stimulating conversations) can help older people retain their cognitive abilities.
Because of advances in medical science and healthcare and an increased emphasis on physical fitness even during one's later years, many older adults are experiencing better health and longer life. Researchers found that the same is true for the cognitive abilities of older persons. For example, declines in test scores of mental ability occur much less rapidly than they did before 1970. In another research study, it was found that less than half of the participants over the age of 81 had experienced declines in cognitive ability over the past seven years. It has been posited that such results are due to improved physical health in older adults today than in preceding generations, as well and as improved mental exercise (e.g., the trend for adults today to work longer in their careers or jobs than did the previous generation and participation in other mental activities). In 2012, Alan J. Gow, Erik L. Mortensen, and Kirsten Avlund published the results of their thirty-year longitudinal cohort study of 802 individuals from Glostrup, Denmark, who were all born in 1914. The study tested the participants’ cognitive abilities and collected information about their leisure and physical abilities to see if there was a correlation between physical activity level and cognitive ability over time. The researchers concluded that while greater activity was consistently associated with higher cognitive ability, they found that this association was largely due to preserved differentiation, although there was a small but significant correlation between higher levels of physical activity at age 60 and 70 and less cognitive decline.
Because of the mental deterioration that occurs in some older adults, the erroneous conclusion can be reached that all older adults suffer from a reduction in cognitive abilities. This can lead to prejudice and discrimination, ageism, and marginalization of older people. For example, employers may be concerned that older people have reduced memory and intellectual capacities and force them to retire at an arbitrary age even when they may still be able to continue to work at the same level at which they always have. Such attitudes have also prompted some families to place their elders in nursing homes based on the assumption that the elder will soon need help; even when the person is still capable of performing all the necessary activities of daily living for him- or herself.
One obvious cognitive change that occurs in many older adults is a loss of memory. However, not all memories or even all types of memory are typically lost. For example, although one might not remember what one had for breakfast that morning, that same person might easily recall events from their youth decades before. Research has found that part of the reason for this phenomenon is the relevance of the information to the person trying to remember it. For example, the ability to recall meaningless or unimportant information tends to decline with age. However, it has also been found that older people continue to remember information that is important to them. Although the ability of older people to learn and remember skills and information tends to decline, researchers have found that when this material is meaningful to the individual, there is less decline in retention. Prospective memory (i.e., the ability to remember to do something in the future such as pick up an item from the store or take one's medication) continues to be strong even in old age if something triggers the person's memory (e.g., driving by the store, seeing one's pill bottle on the kitchen table). The performance of routine or habitual tasks that do not have such memory triggers, on the other hand, can be more difficult for older people. However, in the end, it must be remembered that such memory declines are not universally observed across all older people. There is wide variation in the retention of cognitive abilities between older individuals. In fact, many older adults not only retain previously learned information but continue to grow and learn well into their later years. Researchers have found that most older students actually do better academically than the average 18-year-old. Although this finding more than likely has to do with the clear goals and focus of the older individuals, the fact remains that many people are still able to learn and acquire new knowledge and skills well into their later years.
One puzzle about the cognitive abilities of older people that has different answers across the years concerns the extent to which older individuals retain their intellectual capacities. In cross-sectional studies comparing the capabilities of individuals of different ages, research shows that representative samples of older people typically performed worse on...
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