Late Adulthood
Physical & Cognitive Development

Prepared by Ethel Cantu

Based on Development Across the Lifespan, 2nd Ed

by Robert Feldman, Prentice-Hall


Physical Development in
Late Adulthood

•      The Graying of the Population

•      Longevity

•      Physical Changes

•      Physical and Mental Health

•      Theories of Aging


The Graying of the Population

•      Number of people over 65 has increased since 1900s

•      Increase will continue with aging of the “baby boomers”

•      Percentage of population over 60 is also growing

–      6% in 1900s

–    17% in 1990s

–    25% in 2030s

•      World-wide trend in developed countries


The Graying of the Population

•      Causes

–   High birth and immigration rates from 1900-50

–   Longer life due to medical advances and healthier lifestyles

–   Smaller families since 1950s reduce size of younger age groups

–   Baby boomers will reach 65 from 2001-2025


The Graying of the Population

•      Consequences

–   Older adults will be influential in politics and in marketplace

–   Increasing costs for medical care, esp for 85+

–   Economy will need to support older adults with shrinking number of working adults



•      Primary aging

–    Gradual, inevitable bodily deterioration

•      Secondary aging

–    Results of disease, abuse, disuse ---lifestyle

•      Functional age (regardless of chronological age)

–    Young old: healthy, active majority

–    Old old: frail, infirm minority

•      Ageism

–    Prejudice or discrimination based on age



•      Life span

–   Maximum limit of human life = 120 years

•      Life expectancy

–   Statistically how long you are likely to live

•      Longevity

–   How long you actually lived


Life Expectancy

•      Average age of death steadily increased

–   1776      age 35

–   1900      age 47

–   1996      age 74

–   2050      age 80 (predicted)

•      Trends

–   Longer you live, longer you are likely to live

–   More education, better health care extends life



•      Men: more vulnerable throughout lifespan

–   Shorter life expectancy: AIDS, accidents, heart disease, esp African American

–   Less likely to care for self and seek medical help

•      Women: longer life expectancy

–   Reduction in deaths from childbirth since 1900s

–   More likely to care for self and seek medical help and social support



•      Consequences: Older women more likely….

–   to be widowed

–   to remain unmarried

–   to have more years of poor health

–   to be poor

–   to live alone

–   to need help with IADLs

–   to live in nursing homes


Physical Changes

•      Physiological changes are highly variable

•      Declines may be effects of disease rather than causes

•      Healthier lifestyles may maintain a high level of physical functioning into old age

•      Brain changes result in slower responses

–   loss of white matter: axons

–   compensated by growth of dendrites, synapses


Mental & Behavioral Disorders

•      Mental illness is less common among older adults than younger adults

•      Dementia: physiologically based cognitive and behavioral deterioration

–   Increases with age, but has many possible causes

–   80% of dementia caused by disease, not reversible

•   Hypertension, strokes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s


Mental & Behavioral Disorders

–   20% caused by drug intoxication, drug overdose, depression, alcoholism, head injury

•      People incorrectly believe these conditions are untreatable, consequence of aging

•      Depression is underdiagnosed in older adult

–   Mistaken for dementia, masked by physical illness, not reported because sign of weakness

–   Can be treated with medication, psychotherapy, healthy lifestyle, emotional/social support


Mental & Behavioral Disorders

•      Alzheimer’s is fatal disease with no cure

–   Progressive, degenerative brain disorder

–   Most prevalent, most feared irreversible dementia

–   Risk increases with age; Numbers expected to rise as baby boomers age

–   Cause is unknown, some genetic influence

–   More plaques and tangles in brain than with normal aging; Other brain abnormalities


Theories of Aging

•      Genetic preprogramming

–   DNA code has built in time limit for reproduction of human cells

•   “Death gene” directs body to deteriorate & die

•   Genetic instructions become “illegible”

•      Wear & tear

–   Functions wear out with age

•   By-products create toxins that impair functioning

Cognitive Development

•      Intelligence

–   Does it grow or decline?

•      Memory

–   Does it change?



•      Some abilities decline

–    Nonverbal tasks; Solving unfamiliar problems

–    Reaction time slows

•      Others remain stable or improve

•      Much individual variation

–    Decline is not inevitable, may be preventable

–    Good physical health, stable marriages and active, stimulating lives positively correlated with higher intelligence scores



•      Training recovers lost competence and improves performance over previous levels

•      Cognitive deterioration may be related to disuse

–   Avoid cognitive decline by engaging in lifelong program of mental exercise



•      Less memory loss in societies that hold older people in high regard

•      Episodic memory has greater loss

–   Autobiographical memory follows Pollyanna  principle

•   Pleasant memories that “fit” self-view

•      Semantic & implicit memories unaffected by age