Professor Marshall

LESSON 1: Physical and Psychological Aspects of Aging

Competency (what you're going to learn):

  • Explore the primary physical and psychological aspects of the aging process

Objectives (how you're going to learn it):

  • Discuss the biological changes that occur with aging such as appearance, strength, stamina, and resistance
  • Discuss the psychological changes that may occur with aging such as self-esteem issues, regret, depression, and loneliness
  • Analyze environmental and programmed theories about biological aging

This lesson gives you a formal introduction to some of the concepts and terms that will be repeated throughout the semester.

Before you begin this lesson, there are THREE handouts following for you to read:

  1. First, read this chapter from the Openstax Introduction to Sociology Textbook (2e) on Aging.
  2. Second, read this excerpted chapter from the Openstax Introduction to Psychology Textbook on Lifespan Development
  3. Third, read Biological, Psychological and Social Determinants of Old Age: Bio-psycho-social Aspects of Human Aging.

The materials above provide you with a foundation for some of the common threads you'll see in the course materials as you work through the semester. 


Biological Changes and Aging

in the US, we have a mixed view of aging and older people. We generally appreciate our elderly, but we do have a culture oriented toward youth. We do our best not to look old, with increasing numbers of us participating in "plastic" surgery and rejuvenation. Just look at the multitude of ads for wrinkle creams and hair dyes—for men as well as women.

When we think of the elderly, negative images may come to mind. We may think of someone who has been slowed by physical aging. She or he may have trouble walking up steps, picking up heavy objects, or standing up straight. Phrases like “doddering old fool,” “geezer,” and other disparaging remarks sprinkle our language when we talk about our aged. Further, despite some improvement, the elderly are often portrayed in stereotypical ways by the media. 

Is there truth to these negative images, and if so, how much truth? What do we know of physical changes among the elderly? Gerontologists study these kinds of questions in their work. 

GERONTOLOGYthe scientific study of old age, the process of aging, and the particular problems of old people.

Now, read this excerpt which gives you some basic information on Aging Changes in Organs, Tissues and Cells 

Biological changes occur as we age. One of the first signs is probably in our appearance. Our hair begins to turn gray, our (male) hairlines recede, and a few wrinkles set in. The internal changes that often accompany aging are more consequential, among them being that:

  • fat replaces lean body mass, and many people gain weight
  • bone and muscle loss occurs
  • lungs lose their ability to take in air, and our respiratory efficiency declines
  • the functions of the cardiovascular and renal (kidney) systems decline
  • the number of brain cells declines, as does brain mass overall
  • vision and hearing decline

All of these conditions yield statistics such as follows: about half of people 65 or older have arthritis or high blood pressure; almost one-fifth have coronary heart disease; more than one-fifth have diabetes; and about 60% of women in their 70s have osteoporosis.

Still, these changes vary widely among older people. Some of us will be frail at 65, and others will remain vigorous well into our 70s and beyond. People can be “old” at 60 or even 50, while others can be “young” at 80. Many elders are no longer able to work, but others remain in the labor force. All in all, then, most older people do not fit the doddering image we might have of them; many live satisfying and productive lives.

To what extent are the effects of biological aging the inevitable results of chronological aging? Gerontologists are still trying to understand what causes these effects, and their explanations center on such things as a declining immune system, the slowing of cellular replication, and other processes. 

Some recent research has focused on centenarians—people at least 100 years of age—to try to find out what enables them to live so long. There are about 85,000 centenarians in the United States, and this number is expected to reach 580,000 by 2040. They tend to be as healthy as people in their early 80s, and their medical expenses are lower. Some eat red meat and some are vegetarians, and some exercise a lot while others exercise little. Scientists think they may have “supergenes” that protect them from cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. 

Dr. Roy Walford of the UCLA School of Medicine believes that he has identified a single supergene that controls much of the aging process. Since 1970, he has been studying a small segment of the sixth chromosome in humans called the "major histocompatibility complex." This is the master genetic control center for the body's immune system and is a logical suspect in the aging process. Tests with mice show that those who lived longest had a high rate of DNA repair and "good" genes. It is believed if DNA repair rates could be boosted, the human life span would be extended.

We do not all have supergenes and we will not all become centenarians, but research shows we can still take several steps to help us age better, because what we do as we enter our older years matters much more than genetics. Some things to consider:

  • Exercise. Even a moderate amount each day can help one stay active, independent and maintain positive mood. It can make even the frailest older person stronger and more fit.
  • Continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle and make adjustments for any changes in your function (e.g., hearing, vision, flexibility or strength).
  • Continue to engage in routine preventive health behaviors (e.g., get immunizations for flu and pneumonia).
  • Advocate for yourself and your family in health care settings or bring a knowledgeable representative with you. Do not be afraid to ask questions or get a second opinion.

The effects of biological aging are not inevitable—successful aging is possible. Regular exercise, good nutrition, and stress reduction stand at the top of most gerontologists’ recommendations for continued vitality in later life. 

Before you continue, read this material on theories of aging. 

Takeaway:

  • Gerontology is the scientific study of old age, the process of aging, and the particular problems of old people.
  • Biological changes occur as we age. These changes reinforce the negative view of the elderly, and reflect stereotypes and myths about aging and the elderly. 
  • Successful aging is possible—make changes in your life today which will help you to maintain vitality as you age. 

Psychological Changes and Aging

By 2060 in the US, we will be living for the first time in our country's history in which the number of older adults outnumbers children under age 5. In addition, older adults will live longer than ever before: one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90. This demographic shift has moved the focus of researchers, health care providers and policymakers from how to extend the lifespan to ways to improve the quality of our later years. Staying healthy, active and productive are admirable goals for our nation’s older adults. However, society’s view of “old age” has not always kept up with the reality of being old in America. Many current beliefs about aging were based on information that is no longer valid given recent scientific advances.

As your loved one grows older, the familiarity that he or she has come to rely upon in life will gradually—or sometimes, very abruptly—transition. Major changes can be scary and may lead to feelings of insecurity and/or loss of self-worth. For example, while you may think your retired mother is the luckiest person in the world because she no longer has to get up early to drive to work, much of her identity may have been wrapped up in her job as a doctor, teacher, or social worker who helped people in need.

Likewise, you may envy the fact that your father gets to play with his grandchildren all day and relaxes with a book in the evening while you are back home trying to wrestle the kids into their pajamas and beds, but he might miss being a person that his children rely upon for their full care and support. Elderly individuals must accept that their roles in life will change as their former lifestyles are replaced by new routines and relationships. Increase your chances of aging well by taking some of the following steps.

  • If you feel anxious, depressed or are using alcohol or drugs to manage your mood, seek assistance. Untreated mental health problems are associated with poor physical health outcomes, including increased disability and illness as well as decreased quality of life
  • Be an interested person. Remain aware of new developments in the arts, sciences, politics and other areas of cultural and social interest.
  • Be an interesting person. Engage in something that matters to you and that you care passionately about.

As a person ages, the inevitability of death comes sharply into focus and can often be a source of uncertainty and dread. But many seniors also struggle with anxieties linked to pre-mortality concerns such as:

  • Will my life lose its meaning if I am no longer useful?
  • How long will I be able to care for myself?
  • Will I lose my mental faculties?
  • If my physical health deteriorates, will I have to give up the activities I enjoy?
  • Can I cope with losing my loved ones?

These are questions with no definite answers, and wondering what the future may hold can be a source of much psychological anxiety for your senior loved one.

Takeaway:

  • Older adults who rate their health as good are much more emotionally satisfied with life than older adults who rate their health as poor.
  • Aging can be a source of emotional anxiety.

Sociological Changes and Aging

Research by social gerontologists suggests at least two additional steps older people can take if they want to age successfully:

  1. Involvement in informal, personal networks of friends, neighbors, and relatives. The importance of such networks is thoroughly documented in the social gerontological literature. Social networks enhance successful aging for at least two reasons:
    • They provide practical support, such as help buying groceries and visiting the doctor, to the elderly who need it.
    • They help older people maintain their self-esteem, meet their desire for friendships, and satisfy other emotional needs and thereby enhance their psychological well-being.
  2. Religious involvement is also important. Religious involvement enhances psychological well-being among older adults for at least two reasons:
    • As people worship in a congregation, they interact with other congregants and enhance their social support networks.
    • As they practice their religious or spiritual faith, they reduce their stress and can cope better with personal troubles. 

As elderly people become less physically able to engage in favorite hobbies, drive themselves to appointments or take care of things around the house, they often mourn their loss of independence. It is difficult to rely on others for essential care or even to ask for small favors at times—particularly of the people who once relied upon them for daily assistance.

Some seniors find themselves losing their freedom as they become caregivers for spouses, siblings or other elderly friends whose health has declined more rapidly than their own.

Takeaway:

  • Friendships and social networks are important as we age. 
  • Religious involvement as we age is also important, in whatever forms it takes. 

Conclusion

As we can see, there are many facets to understanding the aging process. Physical, psychological and social changes are all aspects of aging that we should consider, not only as we are ourselves aging, but also as practitioners who will be working with aging communities. 

As we move through the semester, the lessons have been designed to teach you the basics about some of the primary concerns that practitioners who work with elderly clients and patients have, as well as expose you to some of the aspects of aging that change our social environment. Not only will this information assist you in your career, it will be invaluable to you if/when you become a caregiver to the elders in your own family.