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Physical and Cognitive Development in Late Adulthood
Chapter 17
Robert S. Feldman
Late Adulthood (60-death)
Not defined by chronological years alone; we must also take into account people’s physical and psychological well-being, their functional ages.
Gerontologists: specialists who study aging
Late adulthood as a period of considerable diversity in which people change
Growth in some areas, decline in others

How is old age divided?
Some researchers divide aging people into three groups:
Young old (65-74) are healthy and active
Old old (75-84) have some health problems and difficulties
Oldest old (85 up) are frail and need care
Who are the oldest old?
Fastest growing segment of the population
People who are 85 or older
Group's size has nearly doubled in the last 20 years
Trend is occurring in every developed country in the world
By 2050, number of adults worldwide over the age 60 will exceed the number of people under age of 15 for first time in history

Demographics of Aging
Prejudice and discrimination
Negative attitudes, especially about competence and attractiveness
Job discrimination
Identical behavior by an older person and a younger person is interpreted differently
People talk baby talk to persons in nursing homes

Physical Transitions
Primary Aging: universal & irreversible changes due to genetic programming

Secondary Aging: changes in physical & cognitive functioning due to illness, health habits, etc., but are not inevitable results of age
You know you are aging when…
Grey and white hair; thinner


Diminishing height
Bones become brittle, fragile, and thin, often brought about by a lack of calcium in the diet
25 percent of women over 60 have osteoporosis

Largely preventable with sufficient calcium and exercise
Changes in Internal Function
Brain becomes smaller and lighter with age
Reduction of blood flow to the brain
Space between the skull and the brain doubles from age 20 to 70
Number of neurons, or brain cells, declines
Decline with Age in Brain Size
Other Systems
75-year-old's heart pumps less than three-quarters of the blood it pumped during early adulthood
Efficiency of the respiratory system declines with age
Digestive system produces less digestive juice and is less efficient in pushing food through the system
Reaction Time Slows
Peripheral Slowing Hypothesis:
Suggests that overall processing speed declines in peripheral nervous system (spinal cord and brain)
Generalized Slowing Hypothesis:
Processing in all parts of the nervous system, including the brain, is less efficient

Old age brings a distinct declining in the sense organs of the body

Lens becomes less transparent, pupils shrink
Optic nerve becomes less efficient
Distant objects become less acute
Cataracts: cloudy or opaque areas of the lens of eye that interfere with passing light

Glaucoma: Pressure in the fluid of the eye, can be corrected with drugs or surgery

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
Affects the macula
Most common cause of blindness over 60

30% of adults between 65 and 74 have some hearing loss
50% of adults over 75 have hearing loss
High frequencies are the hardest to hear
Hearing aids often helpful, but only 20% will use them
Distortion of sounds
Taste and Smell
Both senses become less discriminating in old age
Due to decline in taste buds on tongue
Olfactory bulbs in the brain shrink and reduce the ability to smell
People eat less and get poor nutrition
Older people may over-salt their food and develop hypertension, or high blood pressure
Physical Disorders
Common physical disorders
Leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
Higher incidence of infectious disease
Arthritis (50%)
Hypertension (1/3)

Psychological and Mental Disorders
Common Psychological Disorders

15-25% of those over 65 have symptoms of some psychological disorder (lower rate than younger adults)
Major depression
Drug-induced psychological disorders

Alzheimer’s Disease
Progressive brain disorder that produces loss of memory & confusion

19% people 75-84
50% people >85
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
Develop gradually
Start with forgetfulness
Affect recent memories first and then older memories fade
Causes total confusion, inability to speak intelligibly or recognize closest family members
Loss of voluntary control of muscles occurs
The Biology of Alzheimer’s Disease
Production of the protein beta amyloid precursor protein goes awry
Produces large clumps of cells (plaques & tangles) that trigger inflammation and deterioration of nerve cells
Brain shrinks
Neuron death leads to shortage of various neurotransmitters
Treatment and Cure
No cure
Treatment deals only with the symptoms
Drugs effective in only half of Alzheimer’s patients
Many end in nursing homes
Relationship Between Aging and Illness
Certain diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, have clear genetic component
Economic well-being also plays role
Psychological factors play important role in determining people’s susceptibility to illness—and ultimately likelihood of death
Can well-being improve?
People can do specific things to enhance their physical and psychological well-being and their longevity – their active life spans -- during old age
Eat a proper diet
Avoid threats to health, such as smoking
Benefits of Exercise and Healthy Diet
Sex in Old Age: Use It or Lose It
Related to physical and mental health and previous sexual activity
Evidence suggests that people are sexually active well into their 80s and 90s
Previous sexual activity increases the desire for sex
2/3 of people over 70 have sex with their spouse on average about once a week
Viewing Partner as Attractive
Life Expectancy
Average age of death for members of a group
Has been steadily increasing
35 in 1776 vs. 46 in 1900
For a person born in 1980 life expectancy is 74.
By 2050, the average life expectancy is predicted to be 80.
Health & working conditions better
Many diseases are wiped out or better controlled
Maximum lifespan believed to be around 120
Would take genetic alterations to extend it

Approaches to Aging
GENETIC PREPROGRAMMING THEORIES OF AGING: DNA has built-in time limit for reproduction of cells

WEAR-AND-TEAR THEORIES OF AGING: mechanical functions of body simply wear out; free radicals speed process

Reconciling Theories of Aging
Each is supported by some research
Each seems to explain certain aspects of aging
Why the body begins to deteriorate and die remains something of a mystery
Living to Age 100
Intelligence in Older People
Older Research Studies and Findings
Notion that older people become less cognitively adept initially arose from misinterpretations of research evidence
Cohort effects
Reaction time components
Retesting effects
Subject attrition
Recent Conclusions about Nature of Intelligence in Older People
Sequential Methods
Some abilities gradually decline (fluid); others stay relatively steady (crystallized)
No uniform pattern of age-related changes across all intellectual abilities
Acquired strategies remains steady and may improve
Environmental Factors
Lesser declines are associated with:
Good health
Higher SES
Intellectually stimulating environment
Flexible personality
Married to bright spouse
Good perceptual processing speed
Feeling satisfied with accomplishments
A Controversial View…Salthouse
Some people—the kind who have consistently engaged throughout their lives in high levels of mental activity such as completing crossword puzzles—enter late adulthood with a “cognitive reserve” that allows continued performance at higher levels.
His hypothesis is controversial, though, and most developmentalists accept the hypothesis that mental exercise is beneficial.
Decline and Stability
Age-related memory declines limited primarily to episodic memories
Semantic memories and implicit memories largely unaffected by age
Short-term memory declines gradually until 70, then more pronounced
New information presented quickly is forgotten sooner.

Autobiographical Memory
Pollyanna principle: remember the good things
Recall of material that "fits" current self-view
Particular periods of life are remembered more easily than others (teens-30s)

Explaining Memory Changes in Old Age
Explanations for apparent changes in memory among older people tend to focus on three main categories
Environmental factors
Information processing deficits in speed and retrieval abilities
Biological factors, especially deterioration in frontal lobes