Q. Is it true that people’s mental abilities inevitably decline as they get older?
A. For many years, researchers believed that mental functioning declined with age, slowly at first, then more rapidly in old age as more and more brain cells die. Growing evidence now suggests that cell death is not responsible for cognitive slowing over the lifespan. Also, any decline that does occur is uneven across different types of tasks and across different individuals. That is, while performance often declines considerably in tasks requiring fast information processing, and commitment of details to memory, the decline is small or virtually non-existent in other areas such as vocabulary or exercise of good judgment. In non-cognitive areas, such as emotional management, older people seem to be more skilled than younger people. Also some older people show little, if any, decline at all.
Q. So why do so many textbooks have those curves showing rather steep and continuous declines in functioning?
A. In part this reflects the fact that the studies often look at a narrow range of cognitive tasks. In part it reflects the way in which “aggregated” or group data can be misleading. Most older people show only very slight declines, at least until they begin to suffer from particular illnesses that impair their cognitive functioning. The most rapid declines generally occur only in the year or so before death. This is especially true for the very old, who normally have short final illnesses. But when we add together data for the few people showing very rapid declines in any particular period, and the data for the larger number of people showing little or no decline, the result is a “curve” that gives the erroneous impression that older people are typically declining at a steady, fairly rapid rate.
Q. Do people really become less interested in friendship and socializing as the get older?
A. A lot of research has been done on this topic. Some theorists claimed that loss of interest in other people, and “turning inward,” was a natural, even “adaptive” response as one approached the end of one’s life, but the research evidence shows that this is not true. People don’t lose interest in social relationships as they get older. However their interests and objectives for socializing do change. Whereas younger people are interested in exploring new relationships, especially ones that will give them new opportunities to learn and make useful social and business contacts, older adults are interested primarily in relating to the people who are already important to them–that is, long standing friends and especially family members. These enduring and cherished relationships remain as important as ever, and may even become more important. In fact, older adults are very successful at deriving emotional satisfaction from these relationships.
Q. Is old age typically a time of despair and loneliness?
A. Again, research on these questions produces results that are likely to be surprising to most young people who are afraid of growing old and view old age as a sad and lonely time. But the evidence from my own research and that of other psychologists shows that quite the opposite is true, especially if those older individuals are free of life-threatening or highly debilitating illness. In fact, the evidence suggests that older people are less lonely than college aged adults and they experience fewer negative emotions like sadness and anger on a day-to-day basis. Older people do, of course, experience losses and other problems that challenge their well-being. But they appear to be better equipped than younger people to cope with those challenges in a way that allows them to maintain a generally positive frame of mind.
Q. How can people free themselves of myths and stereotypes about aging?
A. The best thing one can do is to spend some time really talking to older people who are in their family or who are neighbors. Our research indicates that although students and other younger people often are a bit nervous about such conversations beforehand, they tend to enjoy them. In fact, they usually find them enlightening and even inspiring.