The Social Side of Human Aging
As people grow older, they are the sum of all that they were born with and have lived through; to a large degree, they are reflections of the social and environmental advantages and disadvantages of the times in which they lived. The life-span approach considers human development embedded in this broader context. It is an approach that has had a profound influence on the study of social aging. A life-span perspective makes it clear that old age cannot be viewed as an insular stage of life—separate from all that comes before—but rather as a stage in the continuum of development.
This chapter presents a brief overview of research from social, personality, and developmental psychology that provided the foundation for the committee’s deliberations and illuminated some of the key challenges that are likely to be encountered in carrying out the proposed recommendations. This necessarily brief summary covers the life-span approach; personality and self concept; social relations; emotional well-being; social cognition; and gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In the recommendations we tie these findings about aging to recent advances in mainstream psychology concerning regulatory mechanisms, behavior change, planning, and decision-making—linkages that may lead to progress in areas of economics, health, and well-being.
THE LIFE-SPAN APPROACH
Life-span theory was laid out in a series of edited volumes, which first appeared in the 1970s (Goulet and Baltes, 1970) and continued into the
1990s (Featherman, Lerner, and Perlmutter, 1994). These volumes provided a conceptual framework for the psychological and sociological study of human development across the full life span. As the empirical literature grew and fed back into theory, general conclusions about aging began to crystallize (see Baltes, 1991). One reliable observation is that the balance between gains and losses—albeit weighted increasingly toward loss—continues to include growth in old age (Heckhausen, Dixon, and Baltes, 1989). Of particular relevance to this report, social relations and emotional well-being appear to be areas typified by growth. Indeed, self-knowledge, well-honed skills in self-regulation, and stable social relationships may represent the very resources on which people draw on in order to face the challenges of aging.
One important theme that runs throughout the literature on social aging concerns selection. Choices made throughout life to pursue intimate relationships, professions, families, and avocations make people focus increasingly on specific individuals and narrower life domains. Throughout adulthood, people actively construct skills and hone environments to meet selected goals. People become increasingly sure about who they are and more accepting of their strengths and weaknesses. The investment of resources in selected domains of life means that these same resources cannot be allocated elsewhere. In other words, breadth is sacrificed for depth. The meta-model of what is called selective optimization with compensation, developed by Baltes and Baltes (1990; see also Baltes, 1997; Freund and Baltes, 1998), views development as increasingly optimized on expert performance in selected domains. In the context of this model, the relative strength of social ties, satisfaction with relationships, and generally good mental health (as discussed below) very likely represent optimization in selected domains.
Of course, development is not driven purely by choice. Selections are also made by outside forces that place people on particular paths and offer limited opportunities. Sociologists refer to the “Matthew effect” (Merton, 1968) to describe the cumulative advantages and disadvantages associated with the roles assigned to individuals as a function of gender, race, and socioeconomic status (Dannefer, 2003). Furthermore, the longer life expectancy of women compared to men and the significant increases in the culturally and racially diverse populations in the United States speak to the critical importance of understanding how gender, race, culture, and ethnicity affect aging. The number of people ages 80 and over will increase by 2030 to more than 19.5 million—a doubling of the current population, and 63 percent will be female. Current projections also suggest that by 2050 the total number of non-Hispanic whites ages 65 and over will nearly double, the number of blacks ages 65 and over will more than triple, and the number of Hispanics will increase almost ten-fold (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004a).
Gender, race, culture, and ethnicity are important moderators of aging that place people on very different trajectories, which subsequently influence behavioral opportunities, environmental constraints, and frequently very significant differences in life-styles. For example, if a middle-class woman with health insurance reports the same symptom as a poor woman to a health care provider, treatment likely varies. If a black man jogs on city streets for exercise he is more likely to become a target of suspicion by passersby than a white woman. Retirement “decisions” for the socioeconomically disadvantaged are often not decisions at all. The literature in psychological science tends to consider individuals as causal agents. Yet, the physical and social contexts in which people age likely affect myriad aspects of life—including diets, exercise, beliefs, and social concepts—in profound ways that remain relatively unexplored.
Human development is an interactive process that requires consideration of multiple levels of analysis to understand any aging phenomenon, whether of changes in cognition or in emotional well-being (Dixon, 2000). The early findings from the human genome project provide an elegant example. The project promises to grant remarkable insights into the genetic influences on human behavior. Yet, just as surely the human genome project is revealing the limits of purely genetic explanations for behavior.1 Indeed, some of the most exciting advances address the question of how social factors modify genetic expression. An example comes from Caspi and colleagues (2003), who identified individuals who differed on the 5-HTT (serotonin transporter) gene. People who had one or two copies of the short allele of this polymorphism and who also experienced more stressful life events had an elevated risk of becoming depressed. Another examination of aging phenomena using multiple levels of analysis was recently completed by Epel et al. (2004). They found that women under high levels of perceived chronic stress had much higher levels of cellular senescence, as evidenced by accelerated rates of telomere shortening, than did women under lower levels of stress. A life-span approach points to the need for a developmental diathesis-stress model, in which the developmental trajectories of risk and protective factors are charted to illuminate differential effects as a function of age of exposure (Gatz, Kasl-Godley, and Karel, 1996).
The following sections briefly describe some forces that may be sources of either risk or protection during the life span and their consequences in old age.
PERSONALITY AND SELF-CONCEPT
Stereotypes about older people suggest extremes, ranging from the incompetent fool to the compassionate and wise elder (Cuddy and Fiske, 2002; Hummert, 1990). To believe the stereotypes is to believe that age transforms the very core of who people are. In the realm of personality traits, however, people are more like themselves when they were younger than any old person stereotype. Cross-sectional surveys of men and women ages 18 to 89 show that old people are not necessarily more rigid; if anything, they are less so (Krosnick and Alwin, 1989; Visser and Krosnick, 1998).
Various taxonomies of traits have been offered over the years, but unquestionably the five-factor model (commonly referred to as the “Big Five”) is most widely accepted today. Based on factor analyses of self-descriptions, the five traits that reliably emerge across many studies of Europeans and Americans are: (1) openness to experience, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extraversion, (4) agreeableness, and (5) neuroticism. There is some evidence that the core set of traits that differentiates people are genetically based and that they exert their influence throughout the life course: genetic influence is as strong in older age as early adulthood; yet, different genes may change in importance at different ages (Gatz, Pedersen, Plomin, Nesselroade, and McClearn, 1992; Heiman, Stallings, Hofer, and Hewitt, 2003).
As conceptualized by the five-factor model, personality in old age is not radically different from a person’s younger years. After the age of about 30, personality traits are highly stable, particularly in terms of rank order. That is, relative extraverts in youth become relative extraverts in old age. There are only very modest mean differences between ages, amounting to less than one standard deviation, in samples drawn from the United States, Germany, Portugal, Israel, China, Korea, and Japan: older adults (up to age 76) score slightly higher than younger adults (age 18 and older) on agreeableness and conscientiousness and slightly lower on neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience (McCrae et al., 1999; see also Labouvie-Vief, Diehl, Tarnowski, and Shen, 2000). The big message about personality is about stability (McCrae and Costa, 1994; McCrae et al., 1999; Yang, McCrae, and Costa, 1998).
To be clear, there is no dispute about whether people change in adulthood. They do. Adults are inevitably changed in idiosyncratic ways by the life experiences they encounter, including such major life events as becoming a parent, or less dramatic but persistent experiences associated with, for example, the pursuit of a particular career and the consequent development of a particular type of expertise. Psychologists argue that such changes do not mean that personality changed, however; rather they expect that per-
sonality shapes the direction of such changes. The field is only beginning to develop sophisticated models that link and integrate findings from different approaches (Hooker and McAdams, 2003).
Because traits are associated with important aspects of people’s functioning, including health behaviors and ways of coping, their consistency allows for reasonable predictions about health and well-being in old age (Bosworth et al., 1999; Caspi and Roberts, 1999; Whitbourne, 1987). Traits predict responses to major life events (Costa, Herbst, McCrae, and Siegler, 2000), such as Alzheimer’s disease (Siegler, Dawson, and Welsh, 1994), and the development and even prognosis of coronary heart disease (Hemingway and Marmot, 1999; Williams et al., 2000). McCrae and Costa (1994) argue that certain psychopathologies, specifically major affective disorders, result from a trait-like configuration of personality factors that place individuals at risk to experience chronic periods of negative affect. The dimension of optimism-pessimism represents another important variable related to healthy functioning (Carver and Scheier, 1999). Optimism is related to higher subjective well-being, lower distress, better coping, and faster recovery from illness. Findings from longitudinal study populations have shown that personality traits can be used to predict mortality (Smith and Spiro, 2002).
The idea that stable personality traits such as neuroticism, conscientiousness, and extraversion may affect the trajectory of one’s life has been well explored (see, e.g., Costa and McCrae, 1990), but the possibility that traits that are highly adaptive in one group may be less so in another, as a function of racial, ethnic, or cultural membership, is relatively novel and could contribute substantially to the understanding of aging processes. It is also possible that personality measures designed for majority populations do not accurately measure these constructs in members of minority racial, cultural, or ethnic groups and that different constructs may better characterize other groups (Jackson, Antonucci, and Gibson, 1990).
Other personality approaches, such as that proposed by Albert Bandura (1989), consider individual differences to reflect a complex interplay of factors, including temperamental inheritance, that reflect exposure to different types of environments, acquired beliefs and expectations, and the capacity for self-regulation (Bandura, 1989; see also Pervin, 2003). Richard Lazarus’s (1991) research on stress and coping also takes an interactional or transactional perspective on personality. In this view, individuals differ both in the external tasks they face and the adaptive resources they possess. This is particularly important during transitional stages in people’s lives, for example, when new adaptive tasks are faced by the elderly and the resources needed to master those tasks are limited. In this view, the delicate balance between gains and losses that occurs in the second half of life has important implications for personality. The longer people live, the more
likely they will encounter difficult challenges, including the deaths of friends and loved ones, assaults on their own physical health, and threats to social status. At the same time, experience in life accrues, perspectives change, and individual adjustments play a role in the process. Resilience and wisdom have been of particular interest to life-span developmentalists because they involve the use of age-based experience to compensate for losses in circumscribed domains (Staudinger, 1999; Staudinger, Marsiske, and Baltes, 1995).
Because they are rooted in adaptation, life-span developmental approaches naturally lead to consideration of the ways that goals and goal attainment change throughout life (Baltes and Baltes, 1990; Brandtstädter, Wentura, and Rothermund, 1999; Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles, 1999). Carstensen and colleagues, for example, have shown that the perception of time left in life strongly influences goals. Because aging is inextricably and positively associated with limitations on future time, older people and younger people differ in the goals they pursue (Carstensen et al., 1999). Cross-sectional studies with men and women ages 20 to 83 show that older people are more likely to pursue emotionally meaningful goals; younger people are more likely to pursue goals that expand their horizons or generate new social contacts. Brandtstädter and his colleagues (1999) argue that people adjust goal strivings to accommodate external and internal constraints placed on goal achievement at different points in the life cycle. For example, a central finding coming out of this line of work is that older people respond to the loss of resources in advanced age by downgrading the importance of some previously desirable goals.
Self-concept changes with age, but self-esteem—the evaluative aspect of self-concept—tends not to change (Crocker and Wolfe, 2001). Self-concept refers to the beliefs that people have about themselves, including such characteristics as likes, dislikes, values, appearance, and competencies. By and large, cross-sectional research with men and women between ages 18 and 86 shows that older people report less distance between their actual and ideal selves than younger adults, suggesting that they are striving less for personal growth and are more satisfied with who they are (Cross and Markus, 1991; Ryff, 1991). Relatively nuanced beliefs about the aging process also shape self-concept. For instance, McFarland, Ross, and Giltrow (1992) found that older adults’ recollections of the past were influenced by their theories of aging. In essence, they found that older adults who believe that memory typically declines with age reported that their memories had been much better earlier in life, and, indeed better than is typically reported by young adults. Thus, views of the self appear to influence the course of aging. Indeed, one recent study by Levy, Slade, Kunkel, and Kasl (2002) provides the tantalizing finding that beliefs about aging, as assessed at ages 50 to 94, predicted longevity: people with strong, positive attitudes lived on average 7.5 years longer than those with negative attitudes.
In the social realm there is considerable continuity across adulthood. Psychologists Robert Kahn and Toni Antonucci (1980) described a social pattern common across cultures in which people form what they term “social convoys.” Social convoys are units or bands of people who accompany individuals through life. The researchers show that although these convoys expand and contract across adulthood, they contain a core set of people, mostly kin, who remain present for decades and whose presence predicts functioning of the individuals embedded in them. In this regard, there is considerable stability in social network composition across adulthood. Some researchers argue that this social stability contributes to the continuity of personality. Caspi and Herbener (1990) found that people tend to choose spouses similar to themselves, and they show that people who have spouses similar to themselves are less likely than people with dissimilar spouses to display personality change in adulthood. Thus, it may be that stability is maintained across the life course because people actively create environments that maintain stability. The strength of social ties as predictors not only of psychological well-being but also of morbidity and mortality was established more than 25 years ago (Berkman and Syme, 1979). More recent longitudinal research shows that emotional solidarity between parents and adult children predicts parental survival (Silverstein and Bengtson, 1991).
Although stable in their core, social networks do become smaller with age (Cumming and Henry, 1961). For many years this narrowing was presumed to be due primarily to morbidity and mortality and to place older people at risk, but a different process has been revealed. Longitudinal studies that have included participants ages from 18 to over 100 suggest that adults engage in a sort of pruning process, beginning long before old age, in which emotionally close social relationships are retained while more peripheral relationships are increasingly excluded (Carstensen, 1992; Lang, 2000). By old age, social networks comprise a relatively larger proportion of emotionally close social partners, a change that appears to have positive consequences for well-being in older people (Lang and Carstensen, 1994; Lansford, Sherman, and Antonucci, 1998).
Older people—both men and women—do spend more time alone (Baltes, Wahl, and Schmid-Furstoss, 1990), but interestingly, until advanced old age, loneliness is less prevalent in older adults than younger adults (Victor, Scambler, Bond, and Bowling, 2000; see also Page and Cole, 1991). In cross-sectional studies of men and women ages 13 to 99, older people are less ambivalent about and more satisfied with relationships than younger people (Fingerman, Hay, and Birditt, 2004). For example, older parents grow more satisfied with their relationships with their children, who have
become adults (Fingerman, 2000; Rossi and Rossi, 1990), and the quality of relationships with adult children is strongly associated with parent well-being (Ryff, Lee, Essex, and Schmutte, 1994). Marital satisfaction is also higher in older couples than their younger counterparts (Charles and Carstensen, 2002), and couples (ages 73-93) in a longitudinal study report increasing closeness over time (Field and Weishaus, 1992).
Of course, the positive side of social relations should not be overstated. There can be an important downside to the longevity of family ties, again related to their emotional quality. Although family relationships are, by and large, positive, they are not always so. Close relationships characterized by negative exchanges appear to hold deleterious physical and mental consequences. Over time, negative social exchanges have more potent and deleterious effects than the benefits of positive exchanges (Newsom, Nishishiba, Morgan, and Rook, 2003). Thus, the fact that families last a lifetime can have negative effects, as well as positive ones.
It is also important to keep in mind that even in the strongest relationships, special strains occur in later life, including caregiving and widowhood, and that these strains are different for women and men and experienced quite differently across ethnic groups. Not only does psychological strain accompany caregiving—fully half of all caregivers become clinically depressed (Gallagher, Rose, Rivera, Lovett, and Thompson, 1989)—but the risk of death in the caregiver also increases (Schulz and Beach, 1999). In addition, responsibilities often place severe restrictions on engagement in other activities, ranging from work to social engagement. Otherwise pleasurable activities are forgone so that caregivers can attend to their partners. Interestingly, activity restriction appears to mediate the relationship between caregiver burden and depressed affect even more than the direct physical demands of caregiving (Williamson, Shaffer, and Schulz, 1998). Social norms clearly affect who will become a caregiver and the nature of the caregiving experience. Wives and daughters are far more likely to assume caregiving roles (England, Keigher, Miller, and Linsk, 1991). When husbands do assume the caregiving role, they are more likely to hire professional aides to assist them; moreover, friends and neighbors are more likely to help a husband care for a wife than vice versa (Zarit, Orr, and Zarit, 1985). Among African Americans, beliefs in cultural norms about family care appear to reduce negative physical effects on the caregivers (Dilworth-Anderson, Goodwin, and Wallace, 2004).
The loss of very long-term relationships is common in old age: in 2000, 1.3 million people ages 65 and over had been widowed (representing 32.4 percent of this age group; U.S. Census Bureau, 2004b), and levels of well-being can be reduced for years after the death of a spouse (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener, 2003). Women are at much greater risk of being widowed, due to gender differences in life expectancy and the cultural
practice of women marrying older men. Among older people, 45 percent of older women are widowed, compared with only 14 percent of men (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). However, widowhood appears to take a special toll on men. Bereaved husbands are more likely to show distress than wives (Lichtenstein, Gatz, and Berg, 1998). Also, ethnicity matters: almost 40 percent of older white women are married and living with their spouses, compared with only 22 percent of black women (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004b).
Another fundamental aspect of social relations is in the relationship of self to the group. In addition to individual differences, race, culture, and ethnicity exert strong effects. There is compelling evidence that, for example, East Asians’ identity is more tightly bound within social groups than for Western cultural groups (Markus and Kitayama, 1991). The effects of aging may actually be different for individuals in cultures with a less individualistic orientation. Moreover, as cultural experiences accrue across the life span, culture-based differences in behavior may become more pronounced in older adults than in younger ones (Park, Nisbett, and Hedden, 1999). There is a growing literature that suggests that social identity and support may play an important protective role against morbidity and mortality. If factors like racism increase stress and affect health, one might expect that social constructs such as identity and family cohesion, at least in healthy families, may be protective against health insults in late life. Similarly, positive aspects of identity and self that are related to racial identity may help to buffer against perceived and actual racism and ageism.
One final point about social networks and aging: although research shows that the overall size of social networks is relatively unimportant for well-being and that the elderly are not particularly vulnerable to isolation, when it does occur, isolation holds notably deleterious consequences for well-being, including an increase in morbidity and mortality (Berkman and Breslow, 1983; Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2003).
Surveys of men and women ages 20 to over 80 find that older people are as satisfied with life as younger people (Diener and Suh, 1998), which is somewhat intriguing given the loss of social resources noted above. Expectations about satisfaction are guided, in part, by cultural beliefs. In one study of men and women ages 25 to 74, younger people rated their well-being lower than did older people. However, asked about expectations for the future, younger people anticipated a brighter future while older people predicted lower satisfaction in the future (Staudinger, Bluck, and Herzberg, 2003).
Rather than treat well-being as a unidimensional construct, Ryff and
her colleagues (1989) have taken a differentiated approach to emotional well-being and identified important nuances to the satisfaction construct. Ryff conceptualizes well-being in terms of self-acceptance, environmental mastery, purpose in life, personal growth, positive relations with others, and autonomy. The dimensions appear to have differential relationships with age, with older adults scoring higher than younger adults on environmental mastery and autonomy, but lower on purpose in life and personal growth. Socioemotional selectivity theory also predicts a motivational shift in later life, away from expanding horizons to finding emotional meaning in life (Carstensen et al., 1999). Consistent with findings that emotional meaning increases in importance with age, older people (men and women up to age 75) seem to perform well on problems that involve emotional matters (Blanchard-Fields, Jahnke, and Camp, 1995).
By their own assessments, older people control their emotions better than younger people (Aldwin, Sutton, Chiara, and Spiro, 1996; Diehl, Coyle, and Labouvie-Vief, 1996; Gross and Levenson, 1997; Lawton, Kleban, Rajagopal, and Dean, 1992; McConatha, Leone, and Armstrong, 1997). Although based mostly on global subjective evaluations, such findings are highly reliable across diverse samples of people from age 10 to 92. Overall, there is compelling evidence that at least some aspects of emotional experience and regulation reliably improve with age. Human emotions are most often experienced in social contexts, and it is likely that there are links between increased selection in social partners and emotional experience. Older people—including men and women up to age 95—choose social partners who fulfill emotional goals (Fredrickson and Carstensen, 1990; Fung, Carstensen, and Lutz, 1999; Fung, Lai, and Ng, 2001) and are happier when their social networks are built to meet these goals (Lang and Carstensen, 2002).
Emotional experience, in contrast to satisfaction (which is a more evaluative construct), speaks to the frequency and intensity of felt emotions and the ability to regulate strong emotions when they occur. Emotion regulation appears to be particularly well preserved in old age. By and large, older people report that they experience relatively fewer negative emotions than younger people (Mroczek, 2001), an observation supported by cross-sectional studies of men and women ages 18 to 95 (Carstensen, Pasupathi, Mayr, and Nesselroade, 2000; Gross et al., 1997; Lawton, Kleban, and Dean, 1993) and by longitudinal studies that followed individuals ages 16 to over 65 at baseline for more than 20 years (Charles, Reynolds, and Gatz, 2001). Even after a traumatic event, older people appear to cope better than their younger counterparts. A study that assessed emotional distress before and after the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake, for example, found that the oldest old ruminated the least (Knight, Goetz, Heller, and Bengtson, 2000). With the exception of highly arousing or “surgent” emotions, they
experience similar (Lawton et al., 1993) or even higher levels of positive emotions than young people well into late life (Mroczek and Kolarz, 1998).
Similar themes resonate in mental health research findings. Rather than a risk factor, age appears to be a protective factor in the etiology of mental health disorders (Gatz et al., 1996; Robins and Regier, 1991). With the exception of the dementias, research shows that older adults suffer relatively low rates of all mental health problems, including depression. Older people (men and women ages 63 to 92) also report fewer fears and anxieties than college undergraduates (Powers, Wisocki, and Whitbourne, 1992). Results of the National Health Interview Survey show that serious psychological distress is least likely to be reported by men and women over the age of 65 (National Center for Health Statistics, 2005). In no way should such findings downplay the seriousness of psychopathology when it occurs; however, such findings do help to place such cases in a context that suggests that aging per se does not increase risk of psychopathology.
Social cognition refers to processing information about social matters and the influence of social context on cognitive processing. Research on cognitive aging documents deterioration in a broad array of basic cognitive processes, including speed of processing, working memory, executive functions, attention, and inhibition. These results are from cross-sectional studies that compared high school or college students and sometimes middle-aged adults to older men and women up to age 92 (Oberauer and Kliegl, 2004; Park et al., 2002; Salthouse, Atkinson, and Berish, 2003; Smith, Park, Earles, Shaw, and Whiting, 1998). Longitudinal studies of men and women ages 70 to 103 at baseline show also that age gradients are more negative over time (Singer, Verhaeghen, Ghisletta, Lindenberger, and Baltes, 2003). Yet the research also suggests that reasoning about emotionally charged matters is well maintained. Older people (largely in their 60s and 70s) solve interpersonal problems more flexibly than younger people (college undergraduates), especially those that are emotionally charged (Blanchard-Fields, 1998; Blanchard-Fields et al., 1995), and they display greater evidence for motivated reasoning about social targets when character traits are emotionally laden (Hess, Waters, and Bolstad, 2000). Even on cognitive tasks known to show age-related decline, like source memory, older people (60-75) perform better when the source concerns emotionally significant characteristics of people (Rahhal, May, and Hasher, 2002). Such findings are in keeping with the idea that older people are motivated to maintain social and emotional harmony in day-to-day life and so direct cognitive resources to those goals.
Support for this finding is also evident in studies of attention (Mather
and Carstensen, 2003) and memory, with cross-sectional comparisons of young and middle-aged men and women to older adults ages 56 to 89, including both white and African American participants (Charles, Mather, and Carstensen, 2003; Denburg, Buchanan, Tranel, and Adolphs, 2003; Fung and Carstensen, 2003; Kensinger, Brierley, Medford, Growdon, and Corkin, 2002). Older people attend to and remember emotional images better than neutral images. Most of these studies find that emotionally positive information is particularly salient (Charles et al., 2003; Denburg et al., 2003; Mather et al., 2004). For young adults, emotionally negative material is better remembered than emotionally positive material in young adults; age is associated with a shift favoring the positive—a developmental phenomenon referred to as the positivity effect (Carstensen and Mikels, 2005).
Another important line of research to emerge from social cognition in recent years concerns stereotype threat (Steele, 1997). It appears that at least part of the documented decline in cognitive functioning can be attributed to beliefs about aging and the social context of the testing. Because there are widespread beliefs in the culture that memory declines with age, tests that explicitly feature memory may invoke performance deficits in older people. In one study, Lynn Hasher and her colleagues (Rahhal, Hasher, and Colcombe, 2001) compared memory performance for young adults (ages 17 to 24) to older adults (ages 60 to 75) under two conditions. In the first condition, experimental instructions stressed that memory was being tested, with the experimenter repeatedly stating that participants should “remember” as many statements from a list as they could. In the second condition, experimental instructions were identical except that emphasis was placed instead on learning, that is, participants were instructed to “learn” as many statements as they could. This study showed rather dramatic effects: there were age differences when memory was emphasized, but there were no differences when learning was emphasized.
Hess and his colleagues (2003) have also documented the effects of stereotype threat with respect to memory and aging. Younger people out-performed older people on a memory task, but the age difference was significantly reduced in the older participants who were primed by a positive account of memory among older people. Apparently, this priming enabled those who read the positive account to use an effective memory strategy, while those who read an account of memory deficits in old age were not as likely to do so.
Findings from experiments that prime age stereotypes map well onto findings about the influence that beliefs about aging have on self-concept and memory performance (Miller and Lachman, 1999). Older people who believe they have control over their memories set different goals for themselves and evaluate their performance differently than those who do not
(West and Yassuda, 2004). Importantly, age-related changes in control beliefs are domain specific: in a large probability sample of people ages 25 to 75, greater control was perceived by older people over some parts of life and less over others (Lachman and Weaver, 1998a).
Another important and different type of question in social cognition research is how racially or culturally bound views of aging might affect the aging process itself. For example, it is widely believed that East Asians, particularly the Chinese, hold more positive views of aging than Westerners (Palmore, 1990) and that these positive views act as a buffer against some aspects of age-related decline, such as decreases in cognitive function. When examining women and men ranging from 60 to 90, this assertion was supported by Levy (1996), but not by Yoon et al. (2000). The study of race, culture, and ethnicity also informs the understanding of cognitive and neural function, providing evidence for aspects of the neurocognitive aging process that are malleable—that is, shaped by race, culture, and ethnicity—or invariant—that is, shaped by biological aging (Park and Gutchess, 2002).
GENDER, RACE, AND SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS
In the United States, gender, race, and socioeconomic status indubitably play important roles in shaping developmental pathways. Arguably, the culmination of these pathways is most striking in old age. The experience of old age for a poor, European American female is very different from the experience of an educated, Asian American male. Women live longer than men. They are also more likely to assume caregiving roles, become widowed, and suffer from chronic diseases. They are more likely to be poor and more likely to be institutionalized at the end of their lives.
Racial differences in health are profound. African Americans are more likely than European Americans to suffer from hypertension; Hispanics, from diabetes (Pleis and Coles, 2002). Level of education predicts the risk of dementia (Gurland et al., 1999; Weintraub et al., 2000). Socioeconomic status predicts longevity (National Research Council, 2004, p. 54). In other words, gender, race, and socioeconomic status are associated with very different health outcomes. Differences arise not purely out of hardship, nor does social privilege inevitably lead to better outcomes (Lachman and Weaver, 1998b).
Some, but not all, research suggests that the effects of socioeconomic class and physical strain appear to be mediated by a subjective sense of mastery such that high degrees of mastery may buffer the effects of economic disadvantage (Lachman and Weaver, 1998b; Singer and Ryff, 1999). Indeed, some of the more intriguing questions about well-being in later life concern the relative resilience of African Americans, who suffer on many
objective measures of well-being including health, but show relatively high levels of psychological well-being (Jackson, 1996).
Race, gender, and socioeconomic status are associated with a host of social and behavioral differences, and differences in values, expectations, and behavioral practices. Apparent age and gender differences in family values may be explained, for example, by religious beliefs (Blanchard-Fields, Hertzog, Stein, and Pak, 2001). Elderly African Americans are more likely to want life-prolonging medical care than Asian or European Americans (Lawton, 2000). When African American caregivers hold strong cultural values, their physical health is better preserved than when they do not (Dilworth-Anderson et al., 2004). Also, the difference between the kind of family care considered desirable for older people and the amount of family care actually available can cause strains in Asian American families (Chiu and Yu, 2001). Even widely accepted social psychological principles demand qualification. Research findings from social psychology, for example, have long pointed to a relationship between choice and likability; it is taken as axiomatic that freely chosen options are rated more favorably than options selected by others. A recent study by Snibbe and Markus (2005), however, found that although this relationship is apparent in college students, it is not apparent in people with lower levels of educational attainment.
In order to make significant progress beyond the strong correlations among group status and old age outcomes, it will be important to understand the conditions under which aging experiences are universal, as well as the conditions under which experiences are unique. And it will be essential to identify the mechanisms responsible for those differences. The social science literature leaves no doubt that socioeconomic class, gender, and race play important roles in shaping old age outcomes. However, at the level of mechanisms, understanding of how such group memberships affect psychological processing is only beginning. How race, culture, and ethnicity affect decision-making processes, effective interventions for change, types of social events that affect healthy minds, as well as how they affect stigmatizing experiences and views of aging are just some of the unknown territories related to the country’s increasingly diverse older population. Investigation of these factors might also help explain some of the persistent health disparities observed among these groups as well as ways in which individual differences at the psychological level exacerbate or diminish group differences. For example, racial and ethnic differences in appearance and attitudes toward body image could be significant factors that affect the effectiveness of programs to reduce obesity. Moreover, aspects of aging that are universal across cultures can provide insight into aspects of aging that are biologically based in contrast to those that are culturally situated.
The psychological mechanisms that lead to the observed social, behavioral, and physiological differences are not well understood, and there are many important domains in which research offers high yield at both practical and theoretical levels. The study of the slow and steady accumulation of life experiences that characterize development, however, may answer some of the most interesting and important questions we ask about ourselves.