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6.7: Aging

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    By Tara Queen and Jacqui Smith

    University of Michigan

    Traditionally, research on aging described only the lives of people over age 65 and the very old. Contemporary theories and research recognize that biogenetic and psychological processes of aging are complex and lifelong. Functioning in each period of life is influenced by what happened earlier and, in turn, affects subsequent change. We all age in specific social and historical contexts. Together, these multiple influences on aging make it difficult to define when middle-age or old age begins. This module describes central concepts and research about adult development and aging. We consider contemporary questions about cognitive aging and changes in personality, self-related beliefs, social relationships, and subjective well-being. These four aspects of psychosocial aging are related to health and longevity.

    learning objectives

    • Explain research approaches to studying aging.
    • Describe cognitive, psychosocial, and physical changes that occur with age.
    • Provide examples of how age-related changes in these domains are observed in the context of everyday life.


    An older man with white hair and beard skydives in tandem with a younger jumpmaster.
    Due to positive health trends the population of older adults is increasing steadily. Understanding the psychology of aging will be more important than ever to support this group and help them thrive. [Photo: Woody Hibbard,, CC BY 2.0,]

    We are currently living in an aging society (Rowe, 2009). Indeed, by 2030 when the last of the Baby Boomers reach age 65, the U.S. older population will be double that of 2010. Furthermore, because of increases in average life expectancy, each new generation can expect to live longer than their parents’ generation and certainly longer than their grandparents’ generation. As a consequence, it is time for individuals of all ages to rethink their personal life plans and consider prospects for a long life. When is the best time to start a family? Will the education gained up to age 20 be sufficient to cope with future technological advances and marketplace needs? What is the right balance between work, family, and leisure throughout life? What's the best age to retire? How can I age successfully and enjoy life to the fullest when I'm 80 or 90? In this module we will discuss several different domains of psychological research on aging that will help answer these important questions.

    Overview: Life Span and Life Course Perspectives on Aging

    Just as young adults differ from one another, older adults are also not all the same. In each decade of adulthood, we observe substantial heterogeneity in cognitive functioning, personality, social relationships, lifestyle, beliefs, and satisfaction with life. This heterogeneity reflects differences in rates of biogenetic and psychological aging and the sociocultural contexts and history of people's lives (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Fingerman, Berg, Smith, & Antonucci, 2011). Theories of aging describe how these multiple factors interact and change over time. They describe why functioning differs on average between young, middle-aged, young-old, and very old adults and why there is heterogeneity within these age groups. Life course theories, for example, highlight the effects of social expectations and the normative timing of life events and social roles (e.g., becoming a parent, retirement). They also consider the lifelong cumulative effects of membership in specific cohorts (generations) and sociocultural subgroups (e.g., race, gender, socioeconomic status) and exposure to historical events (e.g., war, revolution, natural disasters; Elder, Johnson, & Crosnoe, 2003; Settersten, 2005). Life span theories complement the life-course perspective with a greater focus on processes within the individual (e.g., the aging brain). This approach emphasizes the patterning of lifelong intra- and inter-individual differences in the shape (gain, maintenance, loss), level, and rate of change (Baltes, 1987, 1997). Both life course and life span researchers generally rely on longitudinal studies to examine hypotheses about different patterns of aging associated with the effects of biogenetic, life history, social, and personal factors. Cross-sectional studies provide information about age-group differences, but these are confounded with cohort, time of study, and historical effects.

    Cognitive Aging

    Researchers have identified areas of both losses and gains in cognition in older age. Cognitive ability and intelligence are often measured using standardized tests and validated measures. The psychometric approachhas identified two categories of intelligence that show different rates of change across the life span (Schaie & Willis, 1996). Fluid intelligence refers to information processing abilities, such as logical reasoning, remembering lists, spatial ability, and reaction time. Crystallized intelligence encompasses abilities that draw upon experience and knowledge. Measures of crystallized intelligence include vocabulary tests, solving number problems, and understanding texts.

    A fit looking older gentleman stands smiling in the sunshine.
    There are many stereotypes of older adults. They are sometimes seen as slow because of changes in cognitive processing speed. They are though, on average, excellent at drawing on personal experience and knowledge. And they tend to outperform young adults when it comes to social and emotional challenges. [Image: Alex E. Proimos,, CC BY-NC 2.0,]

    With age, systematic declines are observed on cognitive tasks requiring self-initiated, effortful processing, without the aid of supportive memory cues (Park, 2000). Older adults tend to perform poorer than young adults on memory tasks that involve recallof information, where individuals must retrieve information they learned previously without the help of a list of possible choices. For example, older adults may have more difficulty recalling facts such as names or contextual details about where or when something happened (Craik, 2000). What might explain these deficits as we age? As we age, working memory, or our ability to simultaneously store and use information, becomes less efficient (Craik & Bialystok, 2006). The ability to process information quickly also decreases with age. This slowing of processing speedmay explain age differences on many different cognitive tasks (Salthouse, 2004). Some researchers have argued that inhibitory functioning, or the ability to focus on certain information while suppressing attention to less pertinent information, declines with age and may explain age differences in performance on cognitive tasks (Hasher & Zacks, 1988). Finally, it is well established that our hearing and vision decline as we age. Longitudinal research has proposed that deficits in sensory functioning explain age differences in a variety of cognitive abilities (Baltes & Lindenberger, 1997).

    Fewer age differences are observed when memory cues are available, such as for recognition memory tasks, or when individuals can draw upon acquired knowledge or experience. For example, older adults often perform as well if not better than young adults on tests of word knowledge or vocabulary. With age often comes expertise, and research has pointed to areas where aging experts perform as well or better than younger individuals. For example, older typists were found to compensate for age-related declines in speed by looking farther ahead at printed text (Salthouse, 1984). Compared to younger players, older chess experts are able to focus on a smaller set of possible moves, leading to greater cognitive efficiency (Charness, 1981). Accrued knowledge of everyday tasks, such as grocery prices, can help older adults to make better decisions than young adults (Tentori, Osheron, Hasher, & May, 2001).

    How do changes or maintenance of cognitive ability affect older adults’ everyday lives? Researchers have studied cognition in the context of several different everyday activities. One example is driving. Although older adults often have more years of driving experience, cognitive declines related to reaction time or attentional processes may pose limitations under certain circumstances (Park & Gutchess, 2000). Research on interpersonal problem solving suggested that older adults use more effective strategies than younger adults to navigate through social and emotional problems (Blanchard-Fields, 2007). In the context of work, researchers rarely find that older individuals perform poorer on the job (Park & Gutchess, 2000). Similar to everyday problem solving, older workers may develop more efficient strategies and rely on expertise to compensate for cognitive decline.

    Personality and Self-Related Processes

    Research on adult personality examines normative age-related increases and decreases in the expression of the so-called "Big Five" traits—extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to new experience. Does personality change throughout adulthood? Previously the answer was no, but contemporary research shows that although some people’s personalities are relatively stable over time, others’ are not (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Roberts & Mroczek, 2008). Longitudinal studies reveal average changes during adulthood in the expression of some traits (e.g., neuroticism and openness decrease with age and conscientiousness increases) and individual differences in these patterns due to idiosyncratic life events (e.g., divorce, illness). Longitudinal research also suggests that adult personality traits, such as conscientiousness, predict important life outcomes including job success, health, and longevity (Friedman, Tucker, Tomlinson-Keasey, Schwartz, Wingard, & Criqui, 1993; Roberts, Kuncel, Shiner, Caspi, & Goldberg, 2007).

    In contrast to the relative stability of personality traits, theories about the aging self-propose changes in self-related knowledge, beliefs, and autobiographical narratives. Responses to questions such as “Tell me something about yourself. Who are you?” "What are your hopes for the future?" provide insight into the characteristics and life themes that an individual considers uniquely distinguish him or herself from others. These self-descriptions enhance self-esteem and guide behavior (Markus & Nurius, 1986; McAdams, 2006). Theory suggests that as we age, themes that were relatively unimportant in young and middle adulthood gain in salience (e.g., generativity, health) and that people view themselves as improving over time (Ross & Wilson, 2003). Reorganizing personal life narratives and self-descriptions are the major tasks of midlife and young-old age due to transformations in professional and family roles and obligations. In advanced old age, self-descriptions are often characterized by a life review and reflections about having lived a long life. Birren and Schroots (2006), for example, found the process of life review in late life helped individuals confront and cope with the challenges of old age.

    A grey-haired couple share an affectionate hug.
    There is a difference between physical age and subjective age as summarized in the saying "You are only as old as you feel." [Image: Emar, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

    One aspect of the self that particularly interests life span and life course psychologists is the individual’s perception and evaluation of their own aging and identification with an age group. Subjective age is a multidimensional construct that indicates how old (or young) a person feels and into which age group a person categorizes him- or herself. After early adulthood, most people say that they feel younger than their chronological age and the gap between subjective age and actual age generally increases. On average, after age 40 people report feeling 20% younger than their actual age (e.g., Rubin & Berntsen, 2006). Asking people how satisfied they are with their own aging assesses an evaluative component of age identity. Whereas some aspects of age identity are positively valued (e.g., acquiring seniority in a profession or becoming a grandparent), others may be less valued, depending on societal context. Perceived physical age (i.e., the age one looks in a mirror) is one aspect that requires considerable self-related adaptation in social and cultural contexts that value young bodies. Feeling younger and being satisfied with one’s own aging are expressions of positive self-perceptions of aging. They reflect the operation of self-related processes that enhance well-being. Levy (2009) found that older individuals who are able to adapt to and accept changes in their appearance and physical capacity in a positive way report higher well-being, have better health, and live longer.

    Social Relationships

    Social ties to family, friends, mentors, and peers are primary resources of information, support, and comfort. Individuals develop and age together with family and friends and interact with others in the community. Across the life course, social ties are accumulated, lost, and transformed. Already in early life, there are multiple sources of heterogeneity in the characteristics of each person's social network of relationships (e.g., size, composition, and quality). Life course and life span theories and research about age-related patterns in social relationships focus on understanding changes in the processes underlying social connections. Antonucci's Convoy Model of Social Relations (2001; Kahn & Antonucci, 1980), for example, suggests that the social connections that people accumulate are held together by exchanges in social support (e.g., tangible and emotional). The frequency, types, and reciprocity of the exchanges change with age and in response to need, and in turn, these exchanges impact the health and well-being of the givers and receivers in the convoy. In many relationships, it is not the actual objective exchange of support that is critical but instead the perception that support is available if needed (Uchino, 2009). Carstensen’s Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (1993; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999) focuses on changes in motivation for actively seeking social contact with others. She proposes that with increasing age our motivational goals change from information gathering to emotion regulation. To optimize the experience of positive affect, older adults actively restrict their social life to prioritize time spent with emotionally close significant others. In line with this, older marriages are found to be characterized by enhanced positive and reduced negative interactions and older partners show more affectionate behavior during conflict discussions than do middle-aged partners (Carstensen, Gottman, & Levenson, 1995). Research showing that older adults have smaller networks compared to young adults and tend to avoid negative interactions also supports this theory. Similar selective processes are also observed when time horizons for interactions with close partners shrink temporarily for young adults (e.g., impending geographical separations).

    Much research focuses on the associations between specific effects of long-term social relationships and health in later life. Older married individuals who receive positive social and emotional support from their partner generally report better health than their unmarried peers (Antonucci, 2001; Umberson, Williams, Powers, Liu, & Needham, 2006; Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Despite the overall positive health effects of being married in old age (compared with being widowed, divorced, or single), living as a couple can have a "dark side" if the relationship is strained or if one partner is the primary caregiver. The consequences of positive and negative aspects of relationships are complex (Birditt & Antonucci, 2008; Rook, 1998; Uchino, 2009). For example, in some circumstances, criticism from a partner may be perceived as valid and useful feedback whereas in others it is considered unwarranted and hurtful. In long-term relationships, habitual negative exchanges might have diminished effects. Parent-child and sibling relationships are often the most long-term and emotion-laden social ties. Across the life span, the parent-child tie, for example, is characterized by a paradox of solidarity, conflict, and ambivalence (Fingerman, Chen, Hay, Cichy, & Lefkowitz, 2006).

    Emotion and Well-being

    As we get older, the likelihood of losing loved ones or experiencing declines in health increases. Does the experience of such losses result in decreases in well-being in older adulthood? Researchers have found that well-being differs across the life span and that the patterns of these differences depend on how well-being is measured.

    Measures of global subjective well-being assess individuals’ overall perceptions of their lives. This can include questions about life satisfaction or judgments of whether individuals are currently living the best life possible. What factors may contribute to how people respond to these questions? Age, health, personality, social support, and life experiences have been shown to influence judgments of global well-being. It is important to note that predictors of well-being may change as we age. What is important to life satisfaction in young adulthood can be different in later adulthood (George, 2010). Early research on well-being argued that life events such as marriage or divorce can temporarily influence well-being, but people quickly adapt and return to a neutral baseline (called the hedonic treadmill; Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). More recent research suggests otherwise. Using longitudinal data, researchers have examined well-being prior to, during, and after major life events such as widowhood, marriage, and unemployment (Lucas, 2007). Different life events influence well-being in different ways, and individuals do not often adapt back to baseline levels of well-being. The influence of events, such as unemployment, may have a lasting negative influence on well-being as people age. Research suggests that global well-being is highest in early and later adulthood and lowest in midlife (Stone, Schwartz, Broderick, & Deaton, 2010).

    Hedonic well-being refers to the emotional component of well-being and includes measures of positive (e.g., happiness, contentment) and negative affect (e.g., stress, sadness). The pattern of positive affect across the adult life span is similar to that of global well-being, with experiences of positive emotions such as happiness and enjoyment being highest in young and older adulthood. Experiences of negative affect, particularly stress and anger, tend to decrease with age. Experiences of sadness are lowest in early and later adulthood compared to midlife (Stone et al., 2010). Other research finds that older adults report more positive and less negative affect than middle age and younger adults (Magai, 2008; Mroczek, 2001). It should be noted that both global well-being and positive affect tend to taper off during late older adulthood and these declines may be accounted for by increases in health-related losses during these years (Charles & Carstensen, 2010).

    Psychological well-being aims to evaluate the positive aspects of psychosocial development, as opposed to factors of ill-being, such as depression or anxiety. Ryff’s model of psychological well-being proposes six core dimensions of positive well-being. Older adults tend to report higher environmental mastery (feelings of competence and control in managing everyday life) and autonomy (independence), lower personal growth and purpose in life, and similar levels of positive relations with others as younger individuals (Ryff, 1995). Links between health and interpersonal flourishing, or having high-quality connections with others, may be important in understanding how to optimize quality of life in old age (Ryff & Singer, 2000).

    Successful Aging and Longevity

    A senior citizen races in the Dublin City Marathon.
    Physical activity is one of the pillars of successful aging. [Image: William Murphy,, CC BY-SA 2.0,]

    Increases in average life expectancy in the 20th century and evidence from twin studies that suggests that genes account for only 25% of the variance in human life spans have opened new questions about implications for individuals and society (Christensen, Doblhammer, Rau, & Vaupel, 2009). What environmental and behavioral factors contribute to a healthy long life? Is it possible to intervene to slow processes of aging or to minimize cognitive decline, prevent dementia, and ensure life quality at the end of life (Fratiglioni, Paillard-Borg, & Winblad, 2004; Hertzog, Kramer, Wilson, & Lindenberger, 2009; Lang, Baltes, & Wagner, 2007)? Should interventions focus on late life, midlife, or indeed begin in early life? Suggestions that pathological change (e.g., dementia) is not an inevitable component of aging and that pathology could at least be delayed until the very end of life led to theories about successful aging and proposals about targets for intervention. Rowe and Kahn (1997) defined three criteria of successful aging: (a) the relative avoidance of disease, disability, and risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking, or obesity; (b) the maintenance of high physical and cognitive functioning; and (c) active engagement in social and productive activities. Although such definitions of successful aging are value-laden, research and behavioral interventions have subsequently been guided by this model. For example, research has suggested that age-related declines in cognitive functioning across the adult life span may be slowed through physical exercise and lifestyle interventions (Kramer & Erickson, 2007). It is recognized, however, that societal and environmental factors also play a role and that there is much room for social change and technical innovation to accommodate the needs of the Baby Boomers and later generations as they age in the next decades.

    Outside Resources

    Web: Columbia Aging Society
    Web: Columbia International Longevity Center
    Web: National Institute on Aging
    Web: Stanford Center Longevity

    Discussion Questions

    1. How do age stereotypes and intergenerational social interactions shape quality of life in older adults? What are the implications of the research of Levy and others?
    2. Researchers suggest that there is both stability and change in Big Five personality traits after age 30. What is stable? What changes?
    3. Describe the Social Convoy Model of Antonucci. What are the implications of this model for older adults?
    4. Memory declines during adulthood. Is this statement correct? What does research show?
    5. Is dementia inevitable in old age? What factors are currently thought to be protective?
    6. What are the components of successful aging described by Rowe and Kahn (1998) and others? What outcomes are used to evaluate successful aging?


    Age identity
    How old or young people feel compared to their chronological age; after early adulthood, most people feel younger than their chronological age.
    Autobiographical narratives
    A qualitative research method used to understand characteristics and life themes that an individual considers to uniquely distinguish him- or herself from others.
    Average life expectancy
    Mean number of years that 50% of people in a specific birth cohort are expected to survive. This is typically calculated from birth but is also sometimes re-calculated for people who have already reached a particular age (e.g., 65).
    Group of people typically born in the same year or historical period, who share common experiences over time; sometimes called a generation (e.g., Baby Boom Generation).
    Convoy Model of Social Relations
    Theory that proposes that the frequency, types, and reciprocity of social exchanges change with age. These social exchanges impact the health and well-being of the givers and receivers in the convoy.
    Cross-sectional studies
    Research method that provides information about age group differences; age differences are confounded with cohort differences and effects related to history and time of study.
    Crystallized intelligence
    Type of intellectual ability that relies on the application of knowledge, experience, and learned information.
    Fluid intelligence
    Type of intelligence that relies on the ability to use information processing resources to reason logically and solve novel problems.
    Global subjective well-being
    Individuals’ perceptions of and satisfaction with their lives as a whole.
    Hedonic well-being
    Component of well-being that refers to emotional experiences, often including measures of positive (e.g., happiness, contentment) and negative affect (e.g., stress, sadness).
    Inter-individual and subgroup differences in level and rate of change over time.
    Inhibitory functioning
    Ability to focus on a subset of information while suppressing attention to less relevant information.
    Intra- and inter-individual differences
    Different patterns of development observed within an individual (intra-) or between individuals (inter-).
    Life course theories
    Theory of development that highlights the effects of social expectations of age-related life events and social roles; additionally considers the lifelong cumulative effects of membership in specific cohorts and sociocultural subgroups and exposure to historical events.
    Life span theories
    Theory of development that emphasizes the patterning of lifelong within- and between-person differences in the shape, level, and rate of change trajectories.
    Longitudinal studies
    Research method that collects information from individuals at multiple time points over time, allowing researchers to track cohort differences in age-related change to determine cumulative effects of different life experiences.
    Processing speed
    The time it takes individuals to perform cognitive operations (e.g., process information, react to a signal, switch attention from one task to another, find a specific target object in a complex picture).
    Psychometric approach
    Approach to studying intelligence that examines performance on tests of intellectual functioning.
    Type of memory task where individuals are asked to remember previously learned information without the help of external cues.
    Type of memory task where individuals are asked to remember previously learned information with the assistance of cues.
    Self-perceptions of aging
    An individual’s perceptions of their own aging process; positive perceptions of aging have been shown to be associated with greater longevity and health.
    Social network
    Network of people with whom an individual is closely connected; social networks provide emotional, informational, and material support and offer opportunities for social engagement.
    Socioemotional Selectivity Theory
    Theory proposed to explain the reduction of social partners in older adulthood; posits that older adults focus on meeting emotional over information-gathering goals, and adaptively select social partners who meet this need.
    Subjective age
    A multidimensional construct that indicates how old (or young) a person feels and into which age group a person categorizes him- or herself
    Successful aging
    Includes three components: avoiding disease, maintaining high levels of cognitive and physical functioning, and having an actively engaged lifestyle.
    Working memory
    Memory system that allows for information to be simultaneously stored and utilized or manipulated.


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