The “aging of America” has become a familiar part of people’s understanding of today’s world. This dramatic change in the nation’s demography began several decades ago and will continue for many more. By 2030 there will be about 70 million people in the United States who are older than 64, nearly 22 percent of the population. This older population will be quite different from earlier cohorts: it will be more ethnically and racially diverse, with almost 26 percent comprised of ethnic minorities; it will be better educated than any in history; and it will be the first cohort to anticipate old age as a normative stage in life. The “oldest old”—those over 85 years of age—will increase from 4.2 million to 8.9 million by 2030.
The range of late-life outcomes is already dramatic, and it is likely to become more so. Old age is a very different experience for financially secure or well-educated people than it is for poor or uneducated people. Those who are healthy experience old age very differently from those who are ill. Those who are embedded in strong social networks fare much better than those who find themselves alone. Culture, race, and ethnicity, plus the accumulation of individual life experiences, shape the course of people’s later years. Understanding individual and social behavior across the life span is key to understanding the diverse outcomes in old age. It is also key to understanding how society can develop the best policies to support longer, healthier lives and to have society benefit from them.
Whether longer life expectancies are good or bad for societies will depend on the nature of old age. To the extent that people come to old age
physically and psychologically fit and play integral roles in communities and families, societies will be strengthened. To the extent that older people are infirm, isolated, or dependent, growing numbers of older people will increase the burdens on a relatively smaller younger population. To the extent that older people are healthy and involved, they will likely contribute far more to society than older people in previous generations.
To further advance understanding of how social and individual factors can improve the health and functioning of older adults, the Behavior and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) requested a study by the National Research Council. The Committee on Aging Frontiers in Social Psychology, Personality, and Adult Developmental Psychology was formed and charged with exploring research opportunities in social, personality, and adult developmental psychology. More specifically, it was charged with identifying research opportunities that have the added benefit of drawing on recent developments in the psychological and social sciences, including behavioral, cognitive, and social neurosciences, that are related to experimental work in social psychology, personality, and adult developmental psychology, and that also cross multiple levels of analysis.
The committee recommends areas of research opportunity that are characterized by recent, provocative findings from psychological science, findings that strongly suggest that additional work will lead to new understanding about the health and well-being of older people. The committee emphasizes areas that have clear applicability to the everyday lives of the nation’s older population. Much of this new work will benefit from a lifespan perspective that looks not only at older people, but at people who will become old in the coming decades, recognizing that old age outcomes are the product of cumulative effects of behavioral and social processes that occur throughout adulthood.
On the basis of the needs of the aging population and the benefits to individuals and to society that could be achieved through research, the committee recommends that the National Institute on Aging concentrate its research support in social, personality, and life-span psychology in four substantive areas: motivation and behavioral change; socioemotional influences on decision making; the influence of social engagement on cognition; and the effects of stereotypes on self and others.
Advances in psychological science have brought the field to a critical juncture where—with adequate support—substantial advances are likely in the near future. Of the social sciences, psychology is especially well-equipped to isolate behavioral mechanisms and to understand how to modify them.
Thus, a move away from the description of behavior toward an investigation of its underlying mechanisms and functions would be most productive. Much of the work the committee identified will proceed most effectively in interdisciplinary teams. Psychology brings to interdisciplinary research a number of sophisticated statistical and methodological approaches. Infrastructure support that stimulates the incorporation of these methods into future research will be essential for the greatest progress.
Motivation and Behavioral Change A great deal has been learned in recent years about life-styles that increase or decrease well-being in old age. Information about the value of adequate nutrition, exercise, and preventive health care is widely available throughout the country, but the dissemination of information alone is clearly insufficient to bring about widespread behavioral change. Having knowledge about what to do does not ensure that people live accordingly; getting people to develop and maintain healthy patterns of living involves motivation.
How do you get people to engage in exercises, take their medications, see their doctors, move to assisted living, or even hang up on telemarketers? More broadly, how do you motivate people to maintain goals that are realistic and adaptive while also modifying those goals and developing new ones in response to new challenges and opportunities, such as retirement, relocation, loss, and illness? Research suggests that older people have diminished interest in novelty, which impairs change initiation, but it also supports that the stability of daily routines and contexts will contribute to maintaining changes once they are in place. Research about motivation that addresses the activation and maintenance of behavior change could generate important insights about long-term adherence to healthy life-styles.
Socioemotional Influences on Decision Making The range of choices faced by Americans of all ages has changed significantly in recent years and is likely to increase. Moreover, decisions about many issues, such as financial planning and retirement, have become more complicated, as have choices about health care, while there is also a wider range of options for where and how to live one’s later life.
Most current research on decision making at older ages examines the ways in which cognitive decline impairs decision making, yet research also suggests that there is stability or even improvement in automatic, intuitive cognitive processes. For older people, affective heuristics may come to play a more central role in decision making than effortful, deliberative strategies. Such findings have major implications on the processes involved in decision making, particularly on the implications of emotional and social influences.
Significant topics for basic research in this field are the roles of affect, risk aversion, persuasion, self-insight, and regret, in increasing or decreasing the likelihood that older adults make adaptive decisions.
Social Engagement and Cognition Maintaining a “healthy mind” is one of the central concerns of old age, with profound social and economic consequences for older people and for society. Recently, fascinating correlational findings suggest that social relationships and social interactions may affect cognitive functioning at older ages, but these findings have not been examined systematically: they do not establish causal connections nor do they help to identify contributing mechanisms. If there is a causal relationship, it is imperative that researchers identify its properties. Do high levels of social engagement lead to greater intellectual stimulation? Does social engagement mediate depression, which can depress cognitive abilities? Do culture, context, and ethnicity play a role in either minimizing or magnifying the effects of social engagement for cognitive health?
Opportunities Lost: Stereotypes of Self and by Others To the extent that false beliefs influence the ability of societies to use the resources represented in older cohorts, opportunities are lost. Ageism—the attitudes, behaviors, and stereotypes targeted toward older adults because of their perceived age—can affect the opportunities that individuals are afforded during the later years of life. Stereotypes are not just static beliefs: they have both long-and short-term consequences that may function in a pernicious cycle. Stereotyped beliefs about older adults can lead to differential treatment and a loss of access to opportunities. Because people frequently respond to the conscious or unconscious stereotypes held by others (or even by themselves), stereotypes may limit the contributions that older people can make to society.
Aging stereotypes include both positive and negative assessments of older adulthood. In some cases, these beliefs may be particularly difficult to change because they contain some truths. How do negative and positive stereotypes about older adults lead to differential treatment? How do beliefs about aging affect identity and other aspects of self-concept? How can stereotyped beliefs of aging and about older adults be changed? How applicable are the theories and successful intervention strategies in changing race- and gender-based stereotypes for those associated with aging?
DEVELOPING A PSYCHOLOGY OF DIVERSITY
Gender, race, socioeconomic class, culture, and ethnicity are factors that affect virtually all aspects of the health and functioning of older people because of their cumulative effects across the life course. Recognizing this,
the NIA has invested significantly in survey research on health disparities between men and women as well as among cultural, racial, and ethnic groups. However, beyond this approach, there has been relatively little investment in understanding how these factors affect fundamental psychological processes and behavioral practices that are associated with aging or even whether the standard measures used in psychological research are reliable and valid across groups. As the U.S. population becomes increasingly diverse across these dimensions, the understanding of subgroups grows in importance. From a scientific perspective, studies of the older population also offer a unique opportunity to study the psychological and behavioral mechanisms that group membership confers and the opportunity to isolate these mechanisms such that behavioral change can occur. The growing diversity of the population means that broad descriptive generalizations about behavior, decisions, social engagement, stereotypes, or any other topic will not characterize large parts of the population accurately.
The committee recommends that psychological research help to further clarify whether race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class are associated with fundamental psychological processes represented in each of the committee’s recommended research areas.
The study of race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class should become substantive topics in aging research. The development of psychological theory in these domains will permit important questions about mechanisms to be answered.
The problem-focused nature of our recommendations will require an interdisciplinary approach that focuses on multilevel factors, a research program difficult to carry out with existing funding mechanisms. The research needs to unite the best conceptual and empirical work in personality and developmental and social psychology with work from economics, neuroscience, medicine, demography, engineering, and other fields.
Better research infrastructure is also needed to support and disseminate methods development. Breakthroughs in thought and theory often occur after improvements in measurement techniques and methodology are made.
In order to carry out the committee’s proposed research program, the committee recommends that the National Institute on Aging provide
support for research infrastructure in psychology and methods development in aging research, including interdisciplinary and multilevel approaches, in order to make progress in each of the other recommended areas more likely and more rapid.
New funding mechanisms could encourage interdisciplinary research and build bridges to other branches of government, private foundations, and industry. Infrastructure development could also include extended workshops and topical conferences. Structural changes could also make innovative use of the review process, perhaps by developing special peer review groups.