Life expectancy is increasing in the world’s richest nations, which translates into an increased emphasis on the physical, cognitive and emotional needs of the growing numbers of older adults. Professionals in the field of Developmental Psychology research and investigate the developmental issues related to those aged 65 and over. This area of developmental psychology is called, “late adulthood.”
Not only are people living longer today, but they’re living with less disability, according to a 2009 article in the medical journal The Lancet. Professor Kaare Christensen of the Danish Ageing Research Centre, University of South Denmark, states in the article that people are living longer and better, citing evidence showing older adults – under the age of 85 – tend to remain more capable and mobile than before. They have a higher incidence of chronic illnesses, such as cancers and heart conditions, but are surviving longer because of early diagnosis and treatment.
Kaare’s article reports that if current life expectancy trends continue, more than half of all babies born today in wealthy, developed nations, will live to 100 years. On the University of South Denmark website, Kaare summarizes the implications of this research: “There’s no doubt that life expectancy is increasing, with no indication of it leveling off in the near future. Yet breaking records is not nearly as interesting as finding out exactly why people age differently. Hopefully with that knowledge, we can help people live longer and live life to the fullest. That’s what it’s all about, after all.”
Results from Kaare’s study support current research taking place in the field of Developmental Psychology. Developmentalists argue that living a full, non-disabled life after the age of 65 means healthy lifestyle habits that start as early as possible in life. But they also note that even those who start exercising, eating healthy and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol in their later years can realize significant improvements in their health and well being.
Primary aging, or inevitable changes in the body, occurs regardless of human behavior. Gray hair, wrinkles, visible blood vessels on the skin, and fat deposits on your chin or abdomen affect those in this age group. Also, diminished eyesight and hearing, to some extent, affects all older adults. And some in their 70s will lose a significant portion of their taste and smell senses. All the major organs and bodily systems slow down – cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, and renal/urinary.
But in most cases, primary aging alone will not cause organ failure. It’s secondary aging – unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, obesity or drug use – in combination with primary aging that causes the illnesses that typically affect older adults.
Denmark’s Kaare states that environmental factors such as diet and exercise account for a staggering 50% of the difference in how people feel or age, while the other 50% is attributed to genetics. Yet Kaare and developmental psychology professionals who study this age category maintain that even the 50% attributed to genetics can be influenced, somewhat, by environmental factors. These researchers report that aging is inevitable, yet it’s how people decide to age that makes a critical difference in physical and emotional well being.
Overall, memory fades as people age and there are marked differences in each decade – the 70s, 80s, and 90s. However, some people defy the general trends and either maintain their mental sharpness into their 80s and 90s, or, more rarely, develop a form of dementia in the middle or beginning of late adulthood.
The type of memory most likely to decline with age is working memory, or short-term memory. Working memory temporarily stores incoming information and processes it using advanced reasoning skills. In general, those in later adulthood are less able to assimilate multiple forms of data at once and simultaneously perform advanced analysis. However, if the person slows down the rate of incoming data and the processing, they are able to focus better and perform as well on certain tasks as they did in earlier adult years.
Less susceptible to decline is long-term memory, or what researchers refer to as the “stored knowledge base.” Developmentalists study data retrieval and changes in stored knowledge, and their studies show that for at least three areas of long-term memory – vocabulary, happy experiences and an individual’s area of expertise – long-term memory remains strong. For example, professional musicians or novelists often work well into their 80s and even 90s, drawing on their knowledge or expertise in their chosen fields.
One of the central concerns as people age is dementia, which includes many diseases and syndromes, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, multiple sclerosis, and vascular dementia, which is caused by strokes. Those with dementia suffer from cognitive or memory impairments, but remain conscious and alert. The impairment might result in memory loss, difficulty in understanding or using words, confusion, the inability to carry out motor activities despite adequate motor function, and the inability to recognize objects.
A 2006 Centers for Disease Control report states that the rate of dementia increases with age. The article Dementia and Its Implications for Public Health estimates that 6% to 10% of individuals aged 65 or older suffer with dementia, and this rate increases 1% to 2% to age 74. Dementia strikes about 30% of those aged 85 or older, 40% of those aged 90 to 94, and 58% of those older than age 94, the report states. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease.
The report concludes that early intervention is imperative to prevent rapid declines in cognitive functioning. “Essentially, older adults, their health care providers, and others around them need to be better informed that dementia is not an expected aspect of aging, but rather a real disorder amenable to intervention.”
Developmental psychology professionals and other researchers study how genetics, education, diet, and the environment all play a part in causing this disease. The CDC reports that researchers are uncovering more and more evidence that some risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and low levels of the vitamin folate, a water-soluble B vitamin, may increase the risk of the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease. Also, evidence that healthy physical, mental and social activities are protective factors against developing dementia is growing.
Emotions and stability vary widely in late adulthood. Theorist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) devised a framework for development based on psychosocial stages, and he defined the last stage of life as a tension between integrity and despair. Individuals either come to accept their lives as having meaning and integrity, or they contemplate their life as unproductive and unfulfilling – feeling despair. In actuality, developmental researchers believe that most individuals fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
Many researchers also strongly believe that how individuals cope with aging depends a great deal on their social and cultural contexts. For example, most of today’s elderly were raised before 1950, during segregation. During those years, African-Americans were poor and less educated, which means that they are most likely living today in poverty. That directly influences their access to proper health care, nursing homes, senior centers and other social services.
In all cases, whatever one’s race, ethnicity or socioeconomic class, developmentalists emphasize the need for those in late adulthood to stay active and interested in many activities, to take classes, volunteer, and participate in the arts. Research shows that those who stay active and connected to others report more enjoyment of life, less hopelessness, and overall, keep a sense of vitality in their lives. And by maintaining close friendships, the elderly also cope better when a spouse dies, which is a major stressor in later adulthood.
If you find the physical, cognitive and emotional changes that take place in later adulthood interesting, you should consider a career in developmental psychology. Because of the growing numbers of people living longer today, the demand for those knowledgeable in this area of psychology is expected to grow. Usually a master’s degree or PhD is required for positions in nursing homes, senior centers, and other nonprofit organizations. If an academic and research career interests you, a PhD is usually required. Also, learn more about the psychology career licensing processes and what the requirements for licensure are.