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Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

Maturing and Aging

Maturing and Aging is the eighteenth program in the Discovering Psychology series. This program looks at the human life cycle in spans of 20-25 years, and what happens physically and mentally as we age. Popular misconceptions about the elderly are examined, often in contrast to the reality of growing old. Researchers, who are developing mental exercises to improve mental efficiency, explain senile dementia and other effects of aging.

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Test Yourself: Myths and Realities About Old Age

As the human life span increases, the elderly make up a greater part of the general population. We know more about the physical and mental effects of aging than ever before, and yet outdated cultural ideas about old age are pervasive, and often influence how we view the elderly. Test yourself on the following statements:

1. Memory loss and senility are inevitable and irreversible effects of aging. Myth or Reality?

Myth: Roughly five percent of people over 65 and only 20 percent of those over 80 suffer from dementia. While some forms of dementia are untreatable, doctors and researchers are discovering that even cognitive changes, such as memory loss, that can occur with aging can be improved through behavioral techniques and mental exercises. Some of the decline in mental abilities is simply a function of disuse, the “use-it-or-lose-it” phenomenon.

2. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Myth or Reality?

Reality: Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), named after German neurologist Alois Alzheimer in 1907, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting more than four million Americans. Researchers now know that AD arises when the normal processing of certain proteins in the brain breaks down, leaving toxic proteins in the brain instead. Currently, there is no cure for AD, nor any way to slow progress of the disease. Several research organizations are working to find a vaccine for AD.

3. As we age, we become mentally weaker. Myth or Reality?

Myth: As people age, they actually tend to become mentally tougher by virtue of their familiarity with a wide range of experiences. For example, by the time we reach our 80s death is more of a reality. By that age, the average person has thought about and probably prepared for his or her own death, and has likely lost family members and friends. As we accrue these and other experiences, we also acquire coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills that make us mentally stronger.

4. Sexuality is a common loss in old age. Myth or Reality?

Myth: While estrogen levels drop in women after menopause and testosterone levels decline very slowly (one percent a year) in men beginning at age 30, age does not reduce the ability to derive sexual pleasure. Many common but mistaken beliefs about aging and sexuality cause anxiety about small changes, and this anxiety can cause sexual problems.

The site for the Alzheimer’s Association, available at, includes background on the disease and current treatments and research.


Biological Senescing: The process of growing older physically.

Dementia: A severe deterioration of cognitive abilities, such as memory, reasoning, judgement, and other higher mental processes.

Life-Span Development: The study of the continuities, stabilities, and changes in psychological and physical processes that characterize human functioning, from conception through the final phases of life.

Mid-Life Crisis: A personal identity conflict that comes during middle adulthood, usually around one’s forties. The result of feelings of worthlessness and unresolved problems with intimacy and identity; frequently manifested in self-indulgent acts reflective of adolescent behavior.

Psychological Adolescing: The process of growing up to full adulthood and realizing the personal potential of oneself; one part of the aging process that develops along with growing older physically.

Selective Optimization: A strategy for fulfillment throughout the aging process, where one maximizes gains and minimizes losses associated with growing older. In other words, making the best of what you have.