Aging is a highly individualized experience and age-related changes occur at different rates for different people. The functional status between individuals of the same chronological age can be surprisingly different. Research suggests that some individuals report feeling up to 20 percent younger than their chronological age.
Chronological age is based only on time, while physiological or functional age is based on the effect of medical and psychosocial stressors on a person such as having a disease or caring for a loved one. Because a person’s physiological age can be estimated by functional measures, the two terms are often used interchangeably. When trying to predict someone’s survival rate for a disease or their longevity in general, their functional age is a more accurate measure than their chronological one.
Aging Is a Natural Process
The aging process is a very natural one. It begins at conception and continues throughout the life cycle. The way someone ages depends on heredity, physical health, nutrition, mental health, and other unknown factors. Some scientists feel that human beings have a built-in “biological clock” which would run for 130 years if no diseases or illnesses affected the body.
The need to understand the normal aging process is increasing rapidly as this nation’s population grows older. Where once it was unusual for families to have three living generations, now it is not unusual for families to have four living generations. Many people experience full lives for two to four decades past 60 years of age. Unfortunately, professionals, policy makers, and families are often unprepared for or uninformed about aging.
Many people have negative assumptions about aging, including beliefs that older people automatically become incompetent, experience depression, lose their memory, and are unable to enjoy life. Such stereotypes develop in us at a very young age and continue to influence us into our adult lives. Therefore, those nearing the age of 65 tend to become anxious about their health care, finances, and physical functioning. Negative perceptions of aging are often internalized and can even lead to serious health consequences. Examples include a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease (which causes problems with memory and thinking), impaired physical functioning, and even premature death. Alternatively, having positive perceptions about aging can lead to health benefits and may even add years onto one’s life.
Benefits of Aging
Comparatively better health
Studies show that in the last 50 years, the health status of older adults has improved. There is even evidence that a large percentage of those age 65 and older have the same physical and mental capabilities as those who are much younger. Eating healthy and being active are two important factors that can delay some age-related diseases and conditions, which is crucial to living a long and healthy life.
Significant personal growth
According to Erik Erikson, who was a developmental psychologist, middle and late adulthood are significant times of personal growth. Erikson was best known for his theory of psychosocial development, which refers to how a person’s needs coincide with the needs of society. This theory stated that there are eight stages in a person’s life in which their personality develops. The last two stages concern middle-aged and older adults, specifically ages 40 and over.
The seventh stage, which takes place between the ages of 40 and 65, is called “generativity versus stagnation” and is characterized by the need to give to others. This can mean giving back to the community or raising children. Generativity helps develop a sense of belonging and being a part of the bigger picture. The successful completion of this stage leaves one feeling useful and accomplished, but failure can result in a sense of stagnation and disconnection from family and society.
The eighth stage takes place when one reaches 65 years old and ends at death. This stage is called “integrity versus despair” and is characterized as the stage of reflection. When life has slowed down and productivity has decreased, we look back on our lives and contemplate our accomplishments and achievements. The successful completion of this stage leads to a virtue of wisdom, which helps one to reflect on their life and feel proud of what they have accomplished. People who look back on their lives and regret not achieving their goals experience feelings of despair rather than integrity. Most people alternate between feelings of integrity and despair during this last stage.
Aging is a natural and beneficial part of life. Perhaps the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sums up the aging experience best: “For age is opportunity no less/ Than youth itself, though in another dress,/ And as the evening twilight fades away/ The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
Chopik, W.J., Bremner, R.H., Johnson, D.J., & Giasson, H.L. (2018, February 1). Age Differences in Age Perceptions and Developmental Transitions. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(67). doi-org.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00067
Fullen, M.C., Granello, D.H., Richardson, V.E., & Granello, P.F. (2018, January 12). Using Wellness and Resilience to Predict Age Perception in Older Adulthood. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96(4), 424-435. doi-org.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/10.1002/jcad.12224
Hawkley, L.C., Norman, G.J., & Agha, Z. (2019, January 16). Aging Expectations and Attitudes: Associations with Types of Older Adult Contact. Research on Aging, 41(6), 523-548. doi-org.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/10.1177/0164027518824291
Hung, C., Azofeifa-Navas, J., Tan, H., Hu, C.A., & Clarke, N. (2015, March 10). Aging: Mitigation and Intervention Strategies. BioMed Research International. dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/276539
Lewis, R. (2020, April 28). Erikson’s 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development, Explained for Parents. Parenthood. healthline.com/health/parenting/erikson-stages
McLeod, S. (2018). Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Simply Psychology. simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html
O’Brien, E.L., & Sharifian, N. (2019, April 11). Managing expectations: How stress, social support, and aging attitudes affect awareness of age-related changes. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(3), 986-1007. doi-org.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/10.1177/0265407519883009
Olshansky, S.J. (2015, April 1). The Demographic Transformation of America. Daedalus, 144(2), 13-19. doi.org/10.1162/DAED_a_00326
Soto-Perez-de-Celis, E., Li, D., Yuan, Y., Lau, Y.M., & Hurria, A. (2018, June). Functional versus chronological age: geriatric assessments to guide decision making in older patients with cancer. The Lancet Oncol, 19(6), e305-e316. doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(18)30348-6
Adapted from the fact sheet When Does Someone Attain Old Age by Linnette Mizer Goard, Extension Agent, Ohio State University Extension, 1996