Some Facts Related to the Aging Process - I

Answers and Source Summary

(Palmore, 1977; Pratt, Wilson, Benthin, & Schmall, 1992; Rossman & Rossman, 1990)

1. False. The majority of old people are not senile. Only about 2 or 3% of persons age 65 or over are institutionalized as a result of psychiatric illness (Busse & Pfeiffer, 1977). A series of eight community surveys found the prevalence of psychosis to range from 4 to 8% (Riley & Foner, 1968). Four studies did find large age differences in free recall of words, but two found no age differences in recognition of words in a list (Woodruff & Birren, 1975). Long-term memory is affected in about 20% of the aged (Botwinick, 1976; Pfeiffer, 1975). Thus, it is clear that the majority of aged do not have serious memory defects.

2. False. The majority of persons past age 65 continue to have both interest in, and capacity for, sexual relations. Masters and Johnson (1966) found that the capacity for satisfying sexual relations continues into the decades of the 70s and 80s for healthy couples. The Duke Longitudinal Studies resulted in similar findings (Palmore, 1974).

3. True. All five senses do tend to decline in old age. Most studies agree that various aspects of vision, hearing, and touch tend to decline in old age. Some studies of taste and smell have not found a significant decline, but the best evidence indicates increases in taste and smell thresholds with age (Riley & Foner, 1968). Studies of structural atrophy in the tongue and nose with old age support the experimental evidence of decline in taste and smell (Birren, 1959).

4. True. Lung capacity does tend to decline in old age. Both vital lung capacity (the volume of air that can be forcibly expelled in one breath) and maximum breathing capacity declines on the average from age 30 onward (Shock, 1962).

5. False. The majority of old people do not feel miserable most of the time. Studies of happiness, morale, and life satisfaction either find no significant difference by age groups or find about one-fifth to one-third of the aged score "low" on various happiness or morale scales (Riley & Foner, 1968). A recent national survey found that the majority of aged are as happy now as when they were younger (Harris, 1975).

6. False. Only 4.8% of persons 65 and over were residents of any long stay institutions in 1970 (U.S. Census, 1970). Even among those age 75 and over, only 9.2% were residents in institutions.

7. True. Physical strength does tend to decline in old age. Studies of various kinds of muscular strength show declines in old age compared to young adulthood of 15 to 46% (Birren, 1959).

8. True. Drivers over age 65 do have fewer accidents per person than drivers under age 65. Older drivers have about the same accident rate per person as middle-aged drivers, but a much lower rate than drivers under age 30 (National Safety Council, 1976). Older drivers tend to drive less miles per year and apparently tend to compensate for any declines in perception and reaction speed by driving more carefully.

9. True. About 80% of the aged are healthy enough to engage in their normal activities. About 5% of those over age 65 are institutionalized and another 15% among the noninstitutionalized say they are unable to engage in their major activity (such as work or housework) because of chronic conditions. This leaves 80% who are able to engage in their major activity (National Center for Health Statistics, 1974).

10. False. The majority of older workers can work as effectively as younger workers. Consistency of output tends to increase by age, as older workers perform at steadier rates than younger workers do. In addition, older workers have less job turnover, fewer accidents, and less absenteeism than younger workers (Riley & Foner, 1968).

11. False. Most old people are not "set in their ways and unable to change." There is some evidence that older people tend to become more stable in their attitudes, but most older people do change and adapt to the many major events that occur. Their political and social attitudes also tend to shift like the rest of society, although somewhat slower than younger people (Cutler & Kaufman, 1975; Glenn & Hefner, 1972).

12. True. Old people usually take longer to learn something new. Experiments have consistently shown that older people take longer than younger people to learn new material (Botwinick, 1967). Studies of on-the-job training also show that older workers tend to take somewhat longer to learn new jobs (Riley & Foner, 1968).

13. False. But, it is not impossible for most old people to learn new things. The same studies cited for number 12 also show that most older persons can eventually learn new things about as well as younger persons, if given enough time and repetitions of the material to be learned.

14. True. The reaction time of most old people tends to be slower than that of younger people. This is one of the best documented facts about the aged on record. It appears to be true regardless of the kind of reaction that is measured (Botwinick, 1967).

15. False. Most old people are not pretty much alike. There appears to be at least as much difference as there is at any age level; there are the rich and poor, happy and sad, healthy and sick, etc. In fact, some evidence indicates that as people age they tend to become less alike and more heterogeneous on many dimensions (Maddox & Douglas, 1974).

16. False. Most old people are not socially isolated and lonely; two-thirds say they are never or seldom lonely (Dean, 1962; Harris, 1975). Most older persons have close relatives within easy visiting distance and make frequent contacts (Binstock & Shanas, 1976). Many socialize, are church or synagogue members, and belong to voluntary groups (Survey of Religions in the U.S., 1966; Erskine, 1964; Harris, 1975; Hausknecht, 1962).

17. True. The majority of old people are seldom bored. Only 17% of persons 65 or over say "not enough to do to keep busy" is a "somewhat serious" or "very serious" problem (Harris, 1975). Another survey found that two-thirds of the aged said they were never or hardly ever bored (Dean, 1962).

18. True. Older workers have fewer accidents than younger workers. For example, a study of 18,000 workers in manufacturing plants found that workers beyond age 65 have about one-half the rate of nondisabling injuries as those under 65 (Kossoris, 1948).

19. True. Most medical practitioners tend to give low priority to the aged. A series of 12 studies all found that most medical, occupational therapy, and social work personnel tend to believe negative stereotypes about the aged and prefer to work with children or younger adults. Few specialize, or are interested in specializing, in geriatrics (Campbell, 1971; Cyrus-Lutz & Gaitz, 1972; Garfinkel, 1975).

20. False. Only 10.3% of the population were age 65 or over in 1975 and this will probably not increase to more than 12% by the year 2000, even if completed fertility drops to zero population growth levels (Current Population Survey, 1975) [actually closer to 13% already].

21. False. The majority of persons 65 or over have incomes well above the poverty level. In 1975 there were only 15.1% of the aged below the official poverty level (about $2,400 for an aged individual or $1,000 for an aged couple). Even if the "near poor" are included the total in or near poverty is only 25.4% (Brotman, 1976).

22. False. Older people do not tend to become more religious as they age. While it is true that the present generation of older persons tend to be more religious than the younger generations, this appears to be a generational difference (rather than an aging effect) due to the older persons' more religious upbringing. In other words, members of the present older generation have been more religious all their lives. Longitudinal studies have found no increase in the average religious interest, religious satisfaction, nor religious activities among older people as they age (Blazer & Palmore 1976).

23. True. Over three-fourths of old people are working or would like to have some kind of work to do (including housework and volunteer work). There are about 12% of persons 65 or over who are employed, 21% who are retired but say they would like to be employed, 17% who work as housewives, 19% who are not employed but do volunteer work, and another 9% who are not employed and not doing volunteer work but would like to do volunteer work (Harris, 1975). These percentages total to 78%.

24. True. The majority of old people are seldom irritated or angry. The Kansas City Study found that over one-half the aged said they are never or hardly ever irritated and this proportion increases to two-thirds at age 80 or over. About three-fourths said they are never or hardly ever angry (Dean, 1962).

25. False. The health and socioeconomic status of older people (compared to younger people) in the year 2000 will probably be much higher than now. Measures of health, income, occupation, and education among older people are all rising in comparison to those of younger people. By the year 2000, the gaps between older and younger persons in these dimensions will probably be substantially less (Palmore, 1976).

26. False. Botwinick (1973) reports that the classical pattern of verbal and performance scores changing with age has been replicated many times and now constitutes one of the best replicated results in the literature. Cattell (1963) makes a distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence, contending that the two types of intelligence show different patterns in aging that are complementary in terms of adaptation. Baltes, Dittman-Kohli, and Dixon (1984) emphasize a distinction between the mechanics and the pragmatics of intelligence.

27. True. Thorndike, Bregman, Tilton, and Woodyard (1928) established that age clearly impacts the time required to complete a task. The only thing that decreases with age is the rate of learning, not the ability to learn. In general it can be concluded that the time required for learning new things increases with age (Cross, 1981). Salthouse (1985) suggests that older adults tend to be slower and have more problems learning new information.

28. False. Bilash and Zubek (1960), Owens (1966), and others have provided reliable data reporting that scores on perceptual and dexterity tests declined from the teen years through the seventies. Manual dexterity is greatest at about age thirty-three; then the hands and fingers become progressively more clumsy (Schlossberg, 1978).

29. True. The inability to hear can produce emotional disturbances such as fear, insecurity, and the inability to learn new concepts (Florida Department of Education, 1973). The psychological damage may be more serious than the actual physical impairment (Cross, 1981). Woodruff-Pak (1988) indicates that hearing loss can impair an individual's capacity for interaction and communication.

30. True. One effect of aging (in the absence of disease) is a slowing of reaction time, regardless of the sensory modality and regardless of the muscle used for the response (Kimmel, 1974; Woodruff-Pak, 1988). After age forty, increasing psychomotor slowness is often an important factor in explaining individual differences (Long, 1983).

31. False. For the general population vision is at its best at about age eighteen; it then declines gradually until around age forty, at which time there is a sharp decline for the next fifteen years (Cross, 1981). Uncorrected distance acuity declines rapidly between ages forty and sixty (Fozard, Gittings, & Schock, 1986).

32. True. The elderly frequently appear to live in a social climate that is not conducive to feelings of adequacy, usefulness, security, and good adjustment in later years. If these concepts are subsumed by the adult learner, the fear of aging, rather than the aging process itself, may induce mental deterioration (Horvath & Horvath, 1952). While physical functioning may decline gradually, physical appearance may deteriorate at a rate that can make one feel older (Biehler & Hudson, 1986).

33. False. Alcohol abuse in later life is often hidden and, consequently, overlooked. Most older people are retired and don't have work problems caused by alcohol use; they often live alone; and they usually drink in the privacy of their homes and so are less likely to be disruptive in public or arrested for driving while intoxicated (Schonfeld & Dupree, 1990; Shipman, 1990). Also, most instruments used to evaluate potential alcohol abuse use indicators that are not as relevant to an older person (Graham 1986).

34. True. Society places a greater stigma on women who abuse alcohol, so women may hide their drinking more and feel greater shame and guilt (Shipman, 1990).

35. True. The physical and psychological symptoms of alcohol abuse are sometimes mistaken for signs of aging and/or physical illness. Alcohol dependence can represent many medical illnesses and medical problems also can mask alcohol dependence (Dunlap, Manghelli, & Tolson, 1990).

36. True. The risk for suicide is particularly high for older white males who live alone and have a history of alcohol use (Blazer 1990; Salzman, 1984).

37. False. Alcohol is not an effective "mood lifter." It depresses the central nervous system causing or intensifying depression and impairing mental alertness, judgment, memory, and physical coordination (Schmall, Lawson, & Stiehl, 1990).

38. True. Some older people who are depressed will have impaired concentration and memory and will appear more confused than depressed. As a result symptoms of depression are sometimes misdiagnosed as dementia (Sargent, 1986).

39. False. Physical illness can mask depression and depression can mimic physical illness. Many physical illnesses have symptoms similar to those produced by depression, including weakness, fatigue, social withdrawal, and appetite changes. This can sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis of a physical illness when depression is the problem (Blazer, 1990).

40. True. A thorough medical examination is an important first step when depression is suspected. Many medications and diseases--such as hypothyroidism and pancreatic cancer--can cause depression (Blazer, 1990).

41. True. Older adults commit suicide at a higher rate than any other age group (Blazer, 1990; Sargent, 1986).

42. False. A person who talks about suicide regardless of age is at high risk of doing so. Suicidal statements or acts should be taken seriously (Osgood, 1985; Sargent, 1986; Schmall, Lawson, & Stiehl, 1990).

43. True. Diagnostic signs of depression that are reliable in young people are sometimes misleading in older persons. The signs of depression can look like the symptoms of other medical illnesses common among older people (Salzman, 1984).

44. True. The CDC notes older people tend to view protection (condoms) primarily as a contraceptive measure; women who no longer fear pregnancy do not insist on protection. Only one sixth of older adults use protection when they have sexual encounters. In 2005, people over 50 accounted for 15% of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. In a recent study among older people, only 38% of men and 22% of women had discussed sex with their medical provider since age 50. Many older adults are sexually active and at risk of acquiring HIV through sexual transmission (CDC, 2005, 2009; Emlet, Gerkin, & Orel, 2009).


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June 4, 2011