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Chapter 15
Physical and Cognitive Development in Middle Adulthood

Physical Development in Middle Adulthood

Middle adulthood is the time when most people first become aware of the gradual changes in their bodies that mark the aging process.

Western society applies a double standard to men and women in terms of appearance.

Older women tend to be viewed in unflattering terms.

Aging men are more frequently perceived as displaying a maturity that enhances their status.

Height, Weight and Strength:
The Benchmarks of Change

Height reaches a maximum during the 20s for most people, and remains stable til about age 55.

After age 55, bones become less dense and ultimately women lose 2 inches and men lose 1 inch in height.

Women are more prone to declining height due to OSTEOPOROSIS, a condition in which the bones become brittle, fragile, and thin due to a lack of calcium in the body.

Height, Weight, and Strength (continued)

Both men and women continue to gain weight in middle adulthood.

The amount of body fat increases.

Exercise and weight control can ameliorate the weight gain.

Throughout middle adulthood, strength gradually decreases.

This is particularly so in the back and leg muscles.

By age 60, people have lost about 10 percent of their maximum strength.

The Senses:
The Sights & Sounds of Middle Age

Starting at age 40, visual acuity - the ability to discern fine spatial detail in both close and distant objects - begins to decline.

The eye's lenses change shape and elasticity.

The lenses become less transparent, which reduces the amount of light entering.

A nearly universal change in eyesight during middle adulthood is the loss of near vision, called PRESBYOPIA.


Declines also occur in depth perception, distance perception, the ability to view the world in three dimensions, and night vision.

Sometimes changes in vision are brought on by a disease called GLAUCOMA, a condition where pressure in the fluid of the eye increases, either because the fluid cannot drain properly or because too much fluid is produced.

About 1 percent to 2 percent of those over 40 are affected.

African-Americans are particularly susceptible.

It can be treated if caught early enough.

If left untreated it can cause blindness.

Hearing in Middle Age

Hearing undergoes a gradual decline beginning in middle adulthood.

The primary sort of loss is for sounds of high frequency, a problem called PRESBYCUSIS.

About 12 percent of people between 45 and 65 suffer from presbycusis.

Men are more prone to hearing loss than women.

Hearing in Middle Age, continued

Because the two ears are not always equally affected by hearing loss, sound localization, the ability to detect the origin of a sound, is diminished.

Some hearing loss results from environmental factors, such as loud noises.

The rest are caused by aging, which brings a loss of hair cells in the inner ear.

Also, the ear drum becomes less elastic with age.


Reaction time in Middle Age

Reaction time increases slightly in middle adulthood.

This is due to a gradual loss of muscle in the body and slower nervous system processing due to aging.

People can compensate by being more careful and practicing skills.

Exercise can slow this loss.

The Ongoing Sexuality of Middle Age

Contrary to popular stereotypes, sexual activity does not fade away for most middle age adults.

Although the frequency of sexual intercourse decreases with age, sexual activities remain a vital part of most middle-aged adults’ lives.

With children grown and away from home, middle-aged adults have more freedom for sexual enjoyment.

With menopause, couples no longer need to practice birth control.

There are differences in the sexual experiences of people in middle adulthood…

Men typically need more time to get an erection.

The volume of fluid in ejaculation declines.

The production of testosterone also declines.

In women, hormonal changes during menopause can cause the walls of the vagina to become less elastic and thinner and the vagina to shrink, potentially making intercourse painful for some women.


The Female Climacteric & Menopause

Starting about age 45, women enter a period known as the FEMALE CLIMACTERIC, the transition from being able to bear children to being unable to do so.

The most notable sign is MENOPAUSE, the cessation of menstruation, considered to have occurred after one year without menstrual periods.

The average age of menopause is about 51.

Perimenopause refers to changes in hormones beginning about 10 years prior to menopause.


Hormone production may fluctuate widely in perimenopause.

In menopause, the production of estrogen and progesterone drop.

Symptoms such as "hot flashes," headaches, feeling dizzy, heart palpitations, and aching joints are common during this time.

Half of women report no symptoms at all.

Symptoms of menopause differ by race/ethnicity

Japanese & Chinese women: fewer symptoms.

African-American women: more hot flashes & night sweats.

Hispanic women: higher level of heart pounding & vaginal dryness.

Reasons unclear: systematic physical differences in hormone production levels suspected. Diet may be part of this.

The Psychological Consequences of Menopause

Historically, it was thought that about 10 % of women had psychological problems associated with menopause:



crying spells

lack of concentration


It is now believed that women's expectations about menopause relate to their experience of menopause, but hormonal fluctuations can also cause mood symptoms.

The Male Climacteric

Do men experience the equivalent of menopause? Not really.

Since they haven’t experienced anything like menstruation, no similar large scale change.

Men do experience some changes during middle age that are collectively referred to as the MALE CLIMACTERIC, the period of physical and psychological change relating to the male reproductive system that occurs during late middle age.

The Male Climacteric

The most common is the enlargement of the prostate gland.

By age 40, 10 percent of men have enlarged prostates. (50% by age 80)

Erectile dysfunction is also more common, and may be caused by medical problems, medication side effects, or psychological issues.

Men still produce sperm and can father children through middle age.

Health in Middle Age

The death rate for people between 40 and 60 has declined dramatically; it is less than half of what it was in 1940.

Health concerns become increasingly important to people during middle adulthood.

The vast majority of people in middle age face no chronic health difficulties and have fewer accidents and infections because they are more careful and have built up immunities over their life.

Health in Middle Age, continued

Despite this, surveys show that health issues are a major concern to middle aged adults.

Some chronic diseases do begin to appear in middle adulthood.

Arthritis typically begins after age 40.

Diabetes is most likely to occur in people between the ages of 50 and 60.

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is one of the most frequent chronic disorders found in middle age.

Social and environmental factors are related to health: African-Americans in the U.S. have twice the death rate of Caucasians.

Related to SES (socioeconomic status): When death rates are compared for whites and African-Americans of the same SES, African-Americans' death rate drops below whites'.

Poorer people are more apt to experience a disabling illness.

Poorer people tend to work in more dangerous occupations & are more likely to become disabled.


Ethnic and Gender Variations in Health

Gender, like SES, makes a difference in health.

Women more likely to experience minor, short-term illness and diseases like migraine headaches.

Men more apt to experience heart disease.

Men more susceptible to cancer, heart disease, liver disease, and accidents.

More medical research is geared toward men’s health.

Stress in Middle Adulthood

Stress continues to significantly impact health during middle adulthood.

Stressors themselves may be different.

The ABC’s of Heart Disease in Middle Adulthood

More men die in middle age of diseases of the heart and circulatory system than any other cause.

Both genetic and experiential factors are involved.

Heart disease runs in families.

Environmental and behavioral risk factors:

Cigarette smoking

High fat and cholesterol in diet

Lack of physical exercise

Men are more likely to suffer than women, and risks increase with age.

The Type A’s and Type B’s

Evidence suggests that some psychological factors are also related to heart disease.

People with TYPE A BEHAVIOR PATTERN, which is characterized by competitiveness, impatience, and a tendency toward frustration and hostility, are more susceptible to heart disease.


Type A behavior, continued

They engage in polyphasic activities - multiple activities carried out simultaneously.

They are easily angered and become verbally and nonverbally hostile if prevented from reaching their goals. Hostility is thought to be the major link to heart disease.

Heart rate and blood pressure rise, epinephrine and norepinephrine increase.

Wear and tear on heart produces disease.

Evidence is only correlational so we cannot say Type A behavior causes heart disease. Also, research is on men.

Type B’s and heart attack risk

By contrast, people with TYPE B BEHAVIOR PATTERN, which is characterized by noncompetitiveness, patience, and a lack of aggression, have less than half the risk of coronary disease that Type A people have.

Not all type A’s are destined to suffer heart disease.

They can learn to behave differently.

The Threat of Cancer

Cancer (unchecked cell growth) is the second leading cause of death in middle age.

Many forms of cancer respond well to treatment.

40 % are still alive 5 years after diagnosis.

Cancer is associated with several risk factors.

Genetics (family history of cancer) raises the risk.

Poor nutrition, smoking, alcohol use, exposure to sunlight, exposure to radiation, and exposure to occupational hazards such as certain chemicals raises the risk

Cancer, continued

Treatment of cancer can take a variety of forms.

Radiation therapy involves the use of radiation to destroy a tumor.

Chemotherapy involves the controlled ingestion of toxic substances meant to poison the tumor.

Surgery may be used to remove the tumor.

Early diagnosis of cancer is crucial.

The earlier that breast cancer is diagnosed, the better a woman’s chance of survival

Mammography, a weak X-ray, is used to detect breast cancer.

Women over 40 should routinely have one.

Younger women have denser breasts and the problem of false positives increases, which is one reason younger women are not encouraged to have testing done.


Psychological Factors Related to Cancer

Increasing evidence suggests that cancer is related to psychological factors, also.

The death rate of women with breast cancer was much lower for those who had a "fighting spirit" or those who denied they had the disease.

People with close family ties are less likely to develop cancer.

Cancer patients who are habitually optimistic report less physical and psychological distress.


Cognitive Development
Does intelligence decline with age?

Cross-sectional studies - which test people of different ages at the same point in time - clearly showed that older subjects scored less well than younger subjects on traditional IQ tests.

Intelligence peaks at 18, stays steady until mid-20s, and declines till end of life.

Cognitive Development, continued

These studies suffer from the cohort effect - influences associated with growing up at a particular historical time that affect people of a particular age.

may be less educated

may have less stimulation on job

may have poorer health

Cross-sectional studies may underestimate intelligence in older subjects.



Cognitive Development, continued

Longitudinal studies, in which the same people are studied periodically over a span of time, revealed different developmental patterns in intelligence.

Adults showed stable and even increasing IQ scores until mid-30s and some to mid-50s, then declined.

Subjects leave or die during time span; those who remain may be healthier, more stable, and psychologically more positive than the people who dropped out.

Longitudinal studies may overestimate the intelligence of older people.


Results of assessments of intelligence are complicated by the fact that many IQ tests include a physical performance portion.

These are timed.

Reaction time slows with age.

Results may be due to physical changes not cognitive changes

Crystallized & Fluid Intelligence

Many researchers believe there are two kinds of intelligence.

FLUID INTELLIGENCE is the ability to deal with new problems and situations.

Fluid intelligence is inductive reasoning, spatial orientation, perceptual speed, and verbal memory.

Fluid intelligence does decline with age.

Crystallized & Fluid Intelligence, continued

CRYSTALLIZED INTELLIGENCE is the store of information, skills, and strategies that people have acquired through education and prior experiences, and through their previous use of fluid intelligence.

Crystallized intelligence includes numerical and verbal abilities, such as solving a crossword puzzle or a mathematical problem.

Crystallized intelligence holds steady or increases with age.



Competence during middle adulthood: Reframing the issue

Even though scores on IQ tests decline with age, middle-aged people show no decline in general cognitive competence.

Traditional tests may not tap into practical intelligence.

Highly successful middle-aged people may not be representative of all middle-aged people.


Professional success may not rely exclusively on cognitive ability.

Older, successful people may have developed expertise in their particular occupational area or SELECTIVE OPTIMIZATION, the process by which people concentrate on particular skill areas to compensate for losses in other areas.

Memory in Middle Adulthood

According to research on memory changes in adulthood, most people show only minimal losses, and many exhibit no memory loss in middle adulthood.

Memory is viewed in terms of three sequential components.

Memory in middle adulthood, continued

Sensory memory is an initial, momentary storage of information that lasts only an instant.

No decline in middle age.

Short-term memory holds information for 15 to 25 seconds.

No decline in middle age.

Long-term memory holds information that is rehearsed for a relatively permanent time.

Some decline in middle age.

Storage is less efficient.

A reduction in efficiency of memory retrieval.



Memory Schemas

We recall information through use of SCHEMAS, organized bodies of information stored in memory.

Schemas allow people to organize, categorize, and interpret new information.

Schemas allow people to organize their life into coherent wholes and interpret social events.

Material that is consistent with existing schemas is more likely to be recalled than material that is inconsistent.


MNEMONICS are formal strategies for organizing material in ways that make it more likely to be remembered. Some suggestions:

Get organized.

Pay attention.

Use the encoding specificity phenomenon.



Mnemonics, continued

Encoding specificity phenomenon is the principle that people are most likely to recall information in environments that are similar to those in which the information was initially learned.

The keyword technique is when the learner forms a mental picture of something and connects it to something to be remembered.

Rehearsal is the idea that practice makes perfect.


Memory, continued

People’s previous experiences within the context of a particular culture allow the construction of schemas in memory as tools for interpreting new encounters

Schemas, in turn, allow people to comprehend & interpret new encounters

Memory schemas influence people’s recall of new information

Material that is consistent with schemas is more likely to be recalled.