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Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Late adulthood is perhaps the most difficult of all to define precisely – mainly because there is very wide individual variation in the physical, cognitive and social processes of aging.

In late adulthood, external physical changes include changes in the skin (wrinkling, loss of elasticity), loss of subcutaneous fat, thinning of the hair, and changes in general posture due to the loss of collagen between the spinal vertebrae (Cavanaugh, 1997; Whitbourne, 2001). There are also many internal changes, less apparent to the onlooker but important to the functioning of the aging individual. These include changes to the cardiovascular system and loss of cardiac muscle strength, decline in muscle mass and reductions in the efficiency of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems (Whitbourne, 2001). But, although physical change is inevitable, the timing and extent are highly variable (and, to some degree, influenced by the behavioural choices and lifestyle of the individual). For example, aging of the skin is affected by exposure to sunlight, physical strength and fitness decline less in people who exercise regularly, and the well-being of the digestive system is influenced by diet and drug use (Whitbourne, 2001). Physical and sensory capacities, so important in our earliest encounters with the world, also tend to decline with age. Manual dexterity is reduced (Francis & Spirduso, 2000), and the visual system becomes less effective (Glasser & Campbell, 1998). The older person’s pupils become smaller, and the lens of the eye becomes less transparent (and so less sensitive to weak lights, and less able to adapt to darkness) and less able to accommodate. Hearing, taste, olfaction and touch all become less sensitive during later adulthood (Marsh, 1996; Whitbourne, 2001). If perceptual abilities were so vital at the outset of life, what are the psychological consequences of beginning to lose them? Imagine becoming less able to listen to music, experiencing difficulties in attending to conversations, or finding that food and drink seem less interesting. Research indicates that our physical senses remain important at this end of the lifespan, too. There is a strong connection between sensory functioning and intelligence in old age (Baltes & Lindenberger, 1997). Gradual deficits in hearing can affect older people’s ability to process speech in the context of other noise, which in turn affects how easily they interact with other people. Certainly, the decline of abilities that were once taken for granted can lead to a reduced sense of competence for the older person (Whitbourne, 2001). And the curtailment of activities that were previously enjoyed can affect people’s assessment of their quality of life. But, once again, the extent of the impact of biological decline varies from person to person, and is influenced by both the rate of change and the individual’s coping skills (which are, in turn, influenced by personality and social circumstances).

Does intellectual capacity decrease with age?
Let us return again to Schaie’s data on primary mental abilities across the lifespan. Look at the average performance of 67-year-olds compared to adults in mid-life, and you will see evidence of some decline. At this stage it is not particularly dramatic, but our eyes are drawn to the right of the figure, where we see more marked reductions in the performance of people in their 70s and 80s. It seems that by the mid 60s, the downward trend is set. But take another look. If we compare the performance of the 67-year-olds with the 25-year-olds, it turns out that they are very similar on three of the measures, and only slightly poorer on two of them. On average, people in their mid 60s are performing on these tests at roughly the same level as those in their mid 20s. Schaie’s and other research (Powell, 1994; Rabbitt et al., 2001) also shows that while there is variation between age groups on some measures of intellectual performance, there is also great variation within groups – and this variation within groups increases with age. Older people do tend to perform less well than younger adults on tasks dependent upon reaction time and processing speed (Bashore, Rindderinkof & van der Molen, 1997; Rabbitt, 1996). Some researchers have also reported that older adults perform less well on Piagetian-type tasks measuring formal operations (Denney, 1984). But these differences do not necessarily support the conclusion that intellectual capacity in the elderly is pervasively inadequate. Intelligent behaviour in everyday life typically involves several capacities, and people may be able to compensate for reductions in one ability (such as processing speed) by placing greater weight on another (such as judgments based on experience).

[Patrick Rabbitt (1934– ) was born in India but spent the majority of his working life in the UK, studying at Cambridge University and working predominantly at the Universities of Oxford and Manchester, where he established an Age & Cognitive Performance Research Unit (funded by the Medical Research Council). Rabbit developed a large longitudinal cohort, shared between Manchester and Newcastle. He has published widely and influentially, and has been especially interested in the source of inter-individual ability in adult development and ageing (focusing on issues such as speed of intellectual processing and IQ).]

Another myth debunked
Many of the studies that point to age-related differences are based on different cohorts – that is, groups of people who were born at different times, and experienced different educational systems (Baltes, 1987). Some studies compare young adults at university with older adults drawn from the broader community, which confounds education with age. Hooper, Hooper and Colbert (1985) addressed this issue by comparing students of different age groups, and found that older participants’ (aged 61–80) performance on formal reasoning tasks was comparable to those of the young people. It is tempting to interpret the declining slope from the 70s to 80s as confirming an inevitable and irreversible decline in performance. But suppose we intervened by providing training to show (or remind) older people how to perform the kinds of tasks being tested? Schaie and Willis and their colleagues have done exactly this – with impressive results! In a number of studies, they have found that ol er people’s performance can be significantly improved by training, and that these benefits endure (Schaie & Willis, 1986; Willis & Nesselroade, 1990). Even reaction time can be improved in the elderly, as Goldstein et al. (1987) demonstrated by the imaginative technique of training a group of older people on video games.

Theorists such as Erikson and Erikson (1997) and Levinson (1978) regarded late adulthood as another major stage of adult development. Erikson and Erikson again saw the individual as facing a conflict – this time between integrity and despair. They maintained that as people realize they are coming towards the end of their life, they reminisce about their past and review how they feel about themselves. Have I met life’s challenges successfully/ achieved goals that I value/contributed to the wellbeing of those I care about? Or have I failed to realize my potential/wasted time in pointless work or futile relationships/been a burden to others? Erikson and Erikson believed that individuals who arrive at a predominantly positive view (i.e. regarding their life as integrated and successful) experience a more contented late adulthood. Levinson saw the period from approximately 60 to 65 as the late adult transition, when the individual has to deal with intrinsic changes in capacity and performance, as well as changes i relations with others and in society’s expectations. One of the key aspects of many people’s adult life – their job – is now approaching its end, or has already concluded. All of these changes pose challenges. How do older people cope with the demands of ageing and their changing social status? Not surprisingly, the answer is that there is considerable variation.

Relations with others
As in all other parts of the lifespan, relationships are important to the older person’s adjustment (Johnson, 2001). For some people, the marital relationship may become more rewarding during old age. Some research has found that satisfaction with marriage tends to be rated higher in retired people than in middle-aged adults (Orbuch, House, Mero & Webster, 1996). This may be partly because older married people tend to be those whose marriages have been successful (i.e. they have stayed together because they were satisfied with the relationship). But it could also be because partners now provide each other with a degree of companionship and support that may not always have been so apparent or so appreciated in busier earlier years, when many other types of relationship were competing with the person’s time. On the other hand, it may be that older people of today grew up in times when marriages were expected to last, and so their more positive ratings may reflect a more traditional determination to ‘see things hrough’ (Norris, Snyder & Rice, 1997). Other social roles – such as grandparenting or great-grandparenting – are also enjoyed by many older people, and allow them to feel that they contribute to their family and to a new generation (Barer, 2001; Smith, 1995). Sibling relationships often become particularly important (Cicirelli, 1995) – by this stage, our most long-lasting relationships are usually those with our brothers and sisters. And the many positive benefits of friendships (see chapter 9) remain at least as important in the later years as they are earlier in the lifespan (Antonucci, 2001). Overall, when asked to identify the most important considerations affecting quality of life, older people consistently place personal relationships and social networks high on their lists (Antonucci, 2001). Successful ageing Although there are losses and declines with age, we have already seen that many people respond to them adaptively – one of the remarkable characteristics of human beings throughout the lifespan is ur resilience (Baltes & Mayer, 1999). For example, there is little evidence among older people of a direct link between physical decline and psychological problems such as depression (Lenze et al., 2001; Penninx, Guralnik, Simonsick et al., 1998; Shmuely-Dulitzki & Rovner, 1997). Many older people adjust well to the changes associated with ageing, and report high levels of enjoyment of life in their later years (Penninx et al., 1998). What factors promote successful aging? In many respects, this is one of the final developmental issues facing us all. In recent years, lifespan developmental psychologists have begun to provide valuable insights. As you might expect, social support and social networks emerge as primary considerations: people with better levels of social support from family and friends tend to enjoy better physical and mental health in the later years (Antonucci, 1994; Johnson, 2001; Lang & Baltes, 1997; Pearlin & Skaff, 1998). Paul and Mary Baltes and their colleagues have investigated the processes of successful aging among participants in the largescale Berlin Aging Study (Baltes & Lindenberger, 1997; Baltes & Mayer, 1999; Marsiske et al., 1995). They have proposed a model of ‘selective optimization with compensation’, according to which people face problems associated with aging by finding ways to handle cognitive tasks that minimize their dependency on their declining biological capacities. A concrete example is provided in a study of younger and older golfers conducted by Over and Thomas (1995). The younger players (average age 34 years) were stronger than the older (average age 62 years), and they had better vision, so they had the advantage when it came to driving off and striving for distance. But the older golfers had certain advantages of their own: they were less prone to be affected by negative emotions and cognitions about the game, they were better able to prepare mentally, and they were more cautious. The two age groups in fact performed to the same handicap level, but did so via different combinations of abilities. The older golfers were apparently exploiting the fact that there are some areas of intellectual performance that improve with age. Such improvements are usually connected with pragmatic reasoning rather than with mechanical/motor abilities. For example, researchers have found that older people show evidence of increasingly complex reasoning about interpersonal issues, life planning and moral dilemmas (Pratt, Golding & Kerig, 1987), and they perform better than younger adults with respect to oral narrative production (Pratt & Norris, 1994). The good news for aspirant psychologists is that a professional life involved in cognitively challenging and stimulating work appears to promote the prospects for successful aging. Indeed, Hogan (2000) points out that there are over 30 former presidents of the American Psychological Association who have lived into their 90s, often continuing their work and enjoying social and leisure activities until very late in life.


During mid-life, people experience a range of external and internal physical changes. External changes include the appearance of grey hair and hair thinning, increases in facial wrinkles, and a tendency to put on weight around the waist or lower body. Internal changes include reductions in the efficiency of the cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems (Whitbourne, 2001). There are changes to the sensory capacities, too. One of the most noticeable for most middle-aged people is the onset of presbyopia – a condition of farsightedness due to progressive changes in the shape of the lens of the eye (Glasser & Campbell, 1998). This leads to difficulty in reading small print – you may notice people of this a e holding printed matter further away than a younger reader does. Hearing, particularly sensitivity to higher frequency sounds, is also prone to weaken during middle age (Brant & Fozard, 1990; Wiley et al., 1998). This is the time when women experience the menopause – the cessation of menstruation. Many women suffer some level of physical and psychological discomfort as a result, such as hot flushes, mood changes, loss of libido and insomnia. But the intensity of these symptoms varies considerably among individuals (Leiblum, 1991; Notman, 1998), and menopausal status is not a strong predictor of psychological distress (Avis, 1999; Becker et al., 2001). There is some evidence that the physical symptoms associated with menopause vary across some cultures (Avis et al., 2001). This may reflect variations in diet and/or social expectations about the nature of the menopause. [menopause the time in a woman’s life when menstruation becomes less regular and then ceases]

As at other stages of the lifespan, physical changes are closely interwoven with psychological changes. Signs of ageing prompt many people to review their lives (see below) and some begin to feel dissatisfied with their bodies. In a large sample of middle-aged and older Swiss women, for example, Allaz, Bernstein, Rouget et al. (1998) found that a majority expressed dissatisfaction about their weight and many had dieted to control it, even though their weight fell within the normal range. Individuals’ own behavioural choices can moderate the effects of biological changes. For example, menopausal women who take regular aerobic exercise report more positive moods and less somatic discomfort than non-exercising peers (Slaven & Lee, 1997). The reactions and support of partners can also influence women’s experience of menopause (Leiblum, 1991).

In terms of primary mental abilities, Schaie’s (1996) data depict mid-life as a relatively stable period. In fact, on most measures, middle-aged adults perform as well as or slightly better than younger adults. Schaie did find a decline in numeric skill, and other researchers have obtained evidence of a modest decrease in reaction time (Wielgos & Cunningham, 1999) and a reduction in conscious processing efficiency (Titov & Knight, 1997) during this period. However, in terms of psychometric measures of intellectual functioning, middle-aged people perform well overall.

Life skills
There are some tasks on which middle-aged adults tend to fare worse than young adults. For example, Denney and Palmer (1981) gave people between the ages of 20 and 80 a traditional problem-solving test – a game of ‘Twenty Questions’. (The goal is to identify an object known to the tester by asking a series of indirect questions about it: ‘Is it a plant?’ ‘Can you eat it?’ etc.) The older people got, the worse they did. But this could well be because this type of test was more familiar to the younger participants, who were therefore likely to do better. This interpretation of the findings is perhaps borne out by another series of tests administered by Denney and Palmer. These ‘real world’ tests related to practical applications of reasoning, such as how to deal with faulty purchases, flooding in the basement, or a child returning late from school. On these practical tests, middle-aged people scored significantly higher than young adults. In other research, Denney and Pearce (1989) found that the number of solutions people generate in response to everyday practical problems peaks in middle age. Emotion and clear thinking Researchers who focus on qualitative developments in adult reasoning have found evidence of continuing development through the lifespan. The progression through absolutist, relativist and dialectical reasoning may continue for decades (Kramer, 1989). Some researchers argue that there is an important reorganization of thinking in middle adulthood, as people achieve an integration of information-processing and emotional self-regulation (Labouvie-Vief, 1999). A good illustration is provided by Blanchard-Fields (1986). She tested adolescents, young adults and middle-aged adults on three hypothetical problems, each involving a conflict of perspectives. One problem concerned competing historical accounts of a civil war, with different historians taking different sides. Another problem concerned a dispute over a proposed visit to grandparents, with parents in favour of the visit and their adolescent children against. The third problem concerned a pregnancy dilemma, with the female and male taking different views over whether to terminate. The participants’ task was to explain the conflict in each case. Blanchard-Fields analyzed the quality of the participants’ reasoning. She found that the middle-aged adults performed at a higher level than each of the younger groups. The younger participants tended to take sides, especially in the emotionally engaging ‘visit’ and ‘pregnancy’ problems, leading to distorted, one-sided accounts. The middle-aged participants were more likely to try to understand why each party felt the way they did, and to provide more balanced descriptions, taking all perspectives into account. In other words, it seemed that the younger participants tended to be swayed by their own emotions about the conflicts, while the middle-aged participants appeared to integrate emotional understanding with other problem-solving skills.

Each phase of life brings new challenges, and for many people mid-life brings a multiplicity of them – from all quarters. By this time, people’s histories are very varied. In their personal and occupational lives, many different options may have been chosen and many different events and circumstances will have affected their progress. So can we pin down any particular patterns of social and emotional development associated with middle age? Despite this variety in individuals’ personal background, some lifespan developmentalists maintain that we can. The ‘mid-life crisis’ . . . Erikson (1980) saw middle age as a period when adults have to face a conflict between generativity and stagnation. Generativity – the process of making a contribution to the next generation – can be realized in a variety of ways through personal (family) or career attainments that provide a basis for others to progress. For example, a businessperson in mid-life might find satisfaction in her professional achievements to date and in the cope now to pass on skills to younger colleagues. Another person might find a sense of generativity through having reared children that she is proud of and who are now entering the adult world well equipped to meet challenges. A ‘link between the generations’, maintained Erikson, is ‘as indispensable for the renewal of the adult generation’s own life as it is for the next generation’ (1980, p. 215). Stagnation is the opposing feeling of having achieved relatively little and of having little to offer to the next generation. Some people in mid-life, for example, conclude that they have not met the family or occupational goals that once motivated them. Some respond to this sense of ‘standing still’ with a period of self-absorption, and an acute awareness that time is limited. [generativity the feeling in mid-life that one has made or is making a contribution to the next generation; stagnation the feeling experienced by some individuals in mid-life that they have achieved relatively little and have little to offer to the next generation] Individuals are likely to experience both types of feeling – generativity and stagnation – and the core developmental process of mid-life, according to Erikson, is the resolution of this conflict. Those who resolve it successfully attain a sense of care (about both the present and the future), and those who fail to do so develop a sense of rejectivity (i.e. they turn away from society and have little interest in contributing to it). Recent research has supported Erikson’s claims that generativity is positively associated with subjective well-being in middle-aged people, while a preoccupation with ageing (‘time running out’) is negatively associated with well-being (Ackerman, Zuroff & Mostkovitz, 2000; Stewart, Ostrove & Helson, 2001). Levinson (1978) also depicts mid-life as a period of inner conflict. Recall that Levinson saw the period from approximately 33 to 40 as the ‘settling down’ period (see above). But settling down is not the end of the story. Levinson found that most of his interviewees next underwent a major new phase, during a period of mid-life transition (40–45). Many of the men he interviewed reported that this was a time of personal crisis. They began to review their lives, asking themselves what they had achieved and where they were heading. Many wondered whether their personal and career struggles had been worthwhile, and some contemplated or underwent radical changes in direction (changing career paths, divorcing). Although Levinson’s sample was all male, other research indicates that many women report similar periods of reassessment during middle age (Koski & Steinberg, 1990; Waskel & Phelps, 1995). These kinds of reassessment are popularly associated with the notion of the ‘mid-life crisis’. The visible signs of aging, changes in the family structure as children become adolescents or young adults, and frustrations in the workplace may all serve to remind the middle-aged person that life is passing by – and this might precipitate a personal ‘crisis’. Levinson argued that this is a normative process, and that successful adult development beyond mid-life requires facing up to and resolving the crisis. . . . debunking the myth Appealing as the idea may seem (and much as newspaper writers and TV dramatists relish it), subsequent research shows that it is an oversimplification to assume that everybody undergoes a mid-life crisis. For example:
1. Periods of turbulence and self-doubt can be experienced by adults of most ages (Soldz & Vaillant, 1999), and some individuals – especially those who score highly on measures of neuroticism (see chapter 14) – may be prone to develop crises at any age (Kruger, 1994).
2. In larger samples than Levinson’s (1978), only a minority of middle-aged people feel they have experienced a crisis (Shek, 1996; Wethington, 2000).
3. Substantial proportions of middle-aged people report better mental health and self-esteem during this phase of life than ever before ( Jones & Meredith, 2000; McQuaide, 1998).
The mid-life crisis therefore does not appear to e as widespread as once thought, and there is no guarantee that you will have any more (or less) crises during your middle years than in other phases of your life. But there is no doubt that there are many pressures on middleaged people (Lachman & James, 1997). Some of these pressures relate to domestic and family life, and others to the world of work. For many middle-aged people, there are new parenting challenges as their children reach adolescence or early adulthood. At a time when adults are becoming aware of their own physical decline, their children may be gaining the attractions of youth. Often, these demands coincide with increasing anxieties about and responsibilities towards the older generation (Belsky, 1997; Cavanaugh, 1998). For some middle-aged people, usually women, looking after both their own children and their aging parents can cause ‘caregiving pile-up’ – an experience of overload due to too many competing demands (Doress-Waters, 1994). As in earlier phases of life, the quality of a person s attachment to his or her partner has important implications for adjustment, personal satisfaction and dealing with life stresses (Diehl et al., 1998; Fraley & Shaver, 1998; Fuller & Fincham, 1995; Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994). For example, in a longitudinal study of middleaged people, Kirkpatrick and Hazan found that those with secure relationship attachment styles were less likely to experience a break-up of their partnership.


Once again, it is difficult to define this phase of life precisely. The variety of human life courses means that individuals can be in very different stages of their personal development at the age point (i.e. turning 40) that we have taken as a rough measure of entry to middle age.