Middle Adulthood: Physical & Cognitive Development

Prepared by Ethel Cantu

Based on Development Across the Lifespan, 3rd Ed

by Robert Feldman, Prentice-Hall


Physical Development in Middle Adulthood

Physical Changes

Sensory and Motor Functioning

Sexual and Reproductive Functioning


Sensory Functioning

Declines are small and gradual from early to middle adulthood: noticeable in mid forties


Hearing loss for high-pitched sounds (presbycusis)

Men have twice loss rate as women


Ability to focus declines

Loss of near vision (presbyopia)

Decline in visual acuity-sharpness of vision

Need more brightness


Motor Functioning

Strength and coordination decline

Due to loss of muscle mass, replaced by fat

Exercise program and good nutrition can increase muscular bulk and density

The more people do, the more they can do

Endurance holds up better than strength

Reaction time slows, especially for motor responses

Experience makes up for physical changes

The Ongoing Sexuality of Middle Age

Contrary to popular stereotypes, sexual activity does not fade away for most middle age adults

Although the frequency of sexual intercourse decreases with age, sexual activities remain a vital part of most middle-aged adult's lives


Sexual and Reproductive Functioning

Decline of reproductive capacity

Women: ability to bear children ends

Men: can father children, but have reduced fertility

Both experience decline in sex hormones

Female Climacteric

Female climacteric

15-20 year period of physiological changes that bring on menopause


Cessation of ovulation and menstruation

Occurs one year after last menstrual period

Less production of estrogen

Periods become irregular

Hot flashes due to expansion and contraction of blood vessels


Lower levels of estrogen linked to higher risk of osteoporosis and heart disease

HRT reduces above risks but increases risks of uterine cancer, breast cancer & blood clots

But current research questions effectiveness of HRT

Experiences of menopause vary by culture

Attitudes toward women and aging

Effect of diet

Male Climacteric

Changes begin 10 yrs later than women

Enlargement of prostrate gland

Causes problems with urination

Testosterone levels decline gradually

Sperm count declines, slower motility of sperm

Less frequent erections & less powerful ejaculations, takes longer to recover

Minority experience erectile dysfunction (impotence)

Multiple causes due to illness, stress, health habits

Sexual Activity

Sexual activity diminishes slightly

Often due to non-physiological causes

Monotony, preoccupation, fears, lack of partner

Sexual relationship often better

Freed from worries about pregnancy

Women freer in sexual expression

Menís slower response means longer, more leisurely periods of sexual activity


Typical middle-aged American is healthy

Hypertension increases from midlife on

Can lead to heart attack or stroke or cognitive impairment in late life

Leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, and accidents

Changes in lifestyle have reduced mortality


Ethnic Variations in Health

African-Americans in the U.S. have twice the death rate of Caucasians.

Related to SES (socioeconomic status): When death rates are compared for Whites and African-Americans of the same SES, African-Americans' death rate drops below Whites'.

Poorer people are more apt to experience a disabling illness.

Poorer people tend to work in more dangerous occupations & are more likely to become disabled.


Gender Differences in Health

During middle age, women experience more non-life threatening illnesses than men but men experience more serious illnesses.

Women smoke less.

Women drink less alcohol.

Women have less dangerous jobs.

Medical research has typically studied diseases of men with all male samples; the medical community is only now beginning to study women's health issues.


Stress and Health

Stress prompts physiological reactions which weaken the immune system

Increases vulnerability to illness

Stress causes blockage of the arteries

Lifestyle factors affect stress levels

Regular exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, frequent socializing, no smoking, little alcohol associated with less stress

Personal mastery and control minimizes stress


Stress & Heart Disease

Coronary heart disease is #1 cause of death in US

Risk factors



High-fat diet

Physical inactivity

High blood pressure

High cholesterol level


Type A personality


Type A Personality




More physiologically reactive

Larger increases in blood pressure

At risk for coronary disease if accompanied by toxic core

Negative emotions, especially hostility

Cognitive Development in Middle Adulthood


Postformal Thought



Cognitive development is multidirectional

Gains in some areas, losses in others

Cross sectional measures of intelligence show decreases with age

May be cohort effect of better/more schooling

Longitudinal measures show increase, at least until fifties

May be inflated due to practice effects and attrition

Uneven performance due to influences of neurological aspects, which decline with age and cultural aspects which improve with age

Fluid intelligence peaks during early adulthood and then declines

Ability to apply mental powers to new problems

Perceiving relationships, forming concepts, drawing inferences

Decline probably due to changes in brain

Crystallized intelligence improves through middle age and on

Ability to remember and use information acquired over a lifetime

Depends on education and culture

Uses stored information and automatic processing

IQ tests may lack ecological validity

Rely on timed, physical responses

Reaction time slows with age

Results may be due to physical, not cognitive changes

Adults face real-life problems

Need measures of practical problem solving

Postformal Thought

Goes beyond abstract, formal thought

Relies on subjective feelings and intuition as well as logic


Sees shades of gray, interprets meaning

Integrates opposing views

Able to reconcile/choose among conflicting views

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis