Facts About Aging
The overall difference in life expectancy at birth in the United States is about 7 years (i.e.72 for men vs. 79 for women); and at every age women, on average, can expect to live longer than men. Interestingly, older women are more likely to suffer from debilitating illnesses than men. However, this difference seems to reflect the fact that women typically have less wealth and education than men—two factors that are associated with shorter life expectancies for both sexes. When the effects of poverty and education are removed in the relevant statistical analyses, these sex differences in rates of disability disappear.
The elderly generally show very high interest in associating with friends and close family members. What they show less interest in than younger adults is the expansion of their social networks to make new friends.
About one–third of problem drinkers develop their alcohol abuse problem late in life, and this problem of alcoholism among the aged is indeed more acute for women than men. Overuse of drugs may result from the tendency of some doctors to automatically prescribe drugs rather than search for underlying physical or psychological causes of symptoms, especially when the patients are elderly women. It may also reflect the fact that women are more likely to be facing the loneliness and stress associated with the loss of a spouse than men, and are generally more likely to seek help from a doctor.
Alzheimer’s disease, the much-dreaded form of dementia associated with profound memory loss and other increasingly devastating symptoms, is a condition that strikes a significant number of elderly people. Nevertheless, most elderly people will never suffer such memory loss. In fact, contemporary estimates suggest that moderate to severe memory loss is found in only 4 to 6 percent of adults over age 65. The most important point to be aware of is that while memory (especially short term memory) does deteriorate somewhat as we get older, profound memory loss is not a “natural” consequence of the aging process. It is a product of disease. Evidence of profound memory loss should prompt a visit to a physician who specializes in such problems.
Exercise programs do generally produce improvements, often dramatic ones, even among very elderly participants. For example, one researcher reported that 80-year olds and 90-year olds who had completed a 10-week strength-training program showed more than a 100 percent increase in their strength, and significant increases in their walking speed and stair climbing ability.
After age 80 the ratio of widows to widowers in the U.S. is about 5 to 1. This statistic reflects the fact that women have a longer life expectancy than men, and the fact that women typically marry men older than themselves. Differences in wealth may also make it easier for marriage-minded widowers to find mates than widows, since elderly women are more likely to be living in poverty than elderly men.
The stereotype of depressed lonely old people is a pervasive one, but it is not supported by the facts. While social isolation is a problem for many older people, it is also a problem for many young people as well. Surveys consistently show that, in the absence of serious illness, older people generally report higher levels of happiness or life satisfaction than young people. One reason for this is that as people age they seem to devote increasing attention to the task of managing their affective states and avoiding sadness or anxiety.
Although there is considerable variability in the degree of loss, sensory decline is fairly inevitable. These losses, it should be noted, have important implications for environmental design in the care of the elderly. For example, greater use of acoustical tile to absorb background noise, use of non-slippery floor surfaces to provide additional traction, and use of non-glare surfaces and clearly marked boundaries can all increase comfort and safety.