How Do We Age?
By 2060, according to the US Census, the number of adults aged 65 years or older will total about 98 million, or one-quarter of the population. The aging adult may need to manage such milestones as menopause, empty nest, retirement, not to mention being the sandwich generation that cares for parents and children.
You might think that older people are grumpy, doddering, frail, and feeble; and that how you age is dictated by your genes. This is not the case, not in the least. Overall, they are more conscientious, agreeable, and better able to regulate emotions. They also have higher levels of happiness than their midlife counterparts, and they’re often more mellow, have flexible mindsets, and are more grateful. Many older people today report better health, greater wealth, and higher levels of education than elders in past decades.
Science is paying a lot of attention to the well-being of people in their later years. One area of concern is cognitive function and the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Physical health is another important area of concern for an aging population; keeping the body moving and healthy helps to ensure the quality of a long life. Additionally, surveys find that more young people are turning to elders for advice and wisdom in a range of domains.
And today, people age 65 and older suffer less debilitating disorders, people aged 75 to 84 report fewer impairments, and fewer people are living in nursing homes or in assisted-living arrangements. Plus, life expectancy has increased by a wide margin; men can expect to live to around age 83, and a woman can expect to live to about age 85.
As far as evolution is concerned, we are here to reproduce, and our bodies must be fit and healthy in our younger years for such childbearing. In advanced years, after reproduction, the negative effect of our genes becomes more apparent as there is no evolutionary benefit in prolonging our lifespans. But modern medicine has changed this greatly, the lifespan has increased and we’re seeing more age-related health problems as a result; the decline is seen in everything from cognitive function to weakened teeth.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reported that up to 48 percent of elderly adults suffer insomnia. Older adults wake up earlier, tire easily, nap during the day, and eat earlier. All of which is not a great combination for a normal sleep schedule. Add to this equation, the medications a senior may be using, or other medical conditions they are managing such as diabetes or Alzheimer’s, or any other serious disease.
In normal aging, older people experience changes in their eyesight. The eye lens becomes thick and stiff, and the elderly person finds it hard to focus their vision. This is called presbyopia. Older people are also more at risk for cataracts, darkening of the eye lens that blocks vision. The bespectacled elderly person is not a stereotype, as deteriorating sight happens to virtually everyone at an advanced age.
Half of people aged 75 and older have difficulty hearing, and one-third of people between the ages of 65 and 74 suffer as well. This age-related loss, called presbycusis, normally affects hearing in both ears. Because it happens over time, the person may not be aware of the change.
About a quarter of people age 65 and older have lost all their teeth, with gum disease as a leading cause. About 68 percent of older people have gum disease and they suffer other normal aspects of decline such as tooth enamel wearing away. But healthy habits can combat age-related dental problems, and at the top of that self-care list is to avoid smoking, as well as assiduous brushing and flossing.
People in their thirties will find gray strands here and there, usually starting at the temples. But half of adults will lose 50 percent of their hair color by age 50. Going gray is hereditary; and some people go prematurely gray, where gray hair appears as early as in one’s mid-20s. Research on twins has found that they go gray at about the same time. And according to the National Institutes of Health, stress can cause premature gray hairs to set in; stress affects stem cells that regenerates hair pigment.
Psychologists have long cared about aging and mental health, and the American Psychological Association has had a division focused on Adult Development and Aging since the 1940s. However, it was not until the 2010s that geropsychology became recognized as a distinct area of inquiry by the American Board of Professional Psychology, with its own standards for board certification.
Geropsychology is a specialty that focuses on understanding, treating, and improving the mental health of older adults. To do this, health professionals work with families and caregivers. They consult within different systems of care such as skilled nursing or assisted living facilities, engage in advocacy for the needs of older adults, and have a role collaborating with other health care professionals and social service agencies.
Menopause is marked by the depletion of eggs in the ovaries, as well as dropping hormone levels. Fertility normally peaks at around ages 25 to 30, declining after age 35. The precursor of menopause is perimenopause, which can occur as early as age 35, but mostly at around age 40. The menstrual cycle starts to ease and halts around age 50. Menopause may be marked by symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings.
There is debate on whether male menopause, also called andropause, even exists. This stage refers to the drop in testosterone in men. However, the drop is not universal. A drop does happen in some men, and mostly after age 60. About 20 percent of men in their 60s, and as many as 50 percent of men in their 80s, go through such a drop in hormones. Men can feel a drop in energy, increased fatigue, low mood, as well as difficulty with sleep.
Men tend to engage in riskier behaviors: they drive more aggressively than women, they experience a higher rate of automobile accidents, men drink more and smoke more, and more men than women are exposed to workplace hazards.
Having two X chromosomes provides women with a backup if a genetic mutation occurs, men meanwhile have a single X chromosome to express all their genes. The female’s genetic reserve might allow a greater repertoire of effective neural, endocrine, and immune responses to potentially damaging environmental demands. Also, female hormones, particularly estrogen, and the resiliency of the female body to accommodate pregnancy and breast-feeding are also thought to promote longevity. Estrogen has a beneficial effect on lipids in the blood and seems to protect against premature heart disease.
The idea of empty nest syndrome was first proposed in 1914 to describe the slide into depression that supposedly occurred for women after their last child left home and they were stripped of the meaning and structure of motherhood. As sometimes happens in research, this idea struck a cultural chord and became widely popular, even though there was no real evidence that this was a common experience. When research finally accumulated on this topic, in the 1970s, the “syndrome” was mostly debunked. While there are some feelings of loss and sadness, most parents report a sense of relief and freedom when their youngest child leaves home.
Researchers have not found data showing that the mid-life crisis even exists. This myth is perpetuated by the vision of a silver-haired middle-aged man in a red sports car. The media loves that stuff. According to researchers such as Susan Krauss Whitbourne, some people in mid-life expect to feel general malaise, and so they do through self-fulfilling prophecy.
No. Contrary to popular myth and concern, retirees do not summarily wither away in retirement. They are free of work stress and have more time for family and meaningful pursuits. That does not mean that all baby boomers are retiring. In fact, many older workers aren't retiring, they’re staying employed and finding ways to contribute, whether through mentoring or charity or altruism.