6.4 Biological and Psychological Aspects of Aging

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe any four biological changes associated with aging.
  2. List any three steps that individuals can try to undertake to achieve successful aging.

Like many other societies, the United States has a mixed view of aging and older people. While we generally appreciate our elderly, we have a culture oriented toward youth, as evidenced by the abundance of television characters in their twenties and lack of those in their older years. As individuals, we do our best not to look old, as the many ads for wrinkle creams and products to darken gray hair attest. Moreover, when we think of the elderly, negative images often come to mind. We often think of someone who has been slowed by age both physically and mentally. She or he may have trouble walking up steps, picking up heavy grocery bags, standing up straight, or remembering recent events. The term senile often comes to mind, and phrases like “doddering old fool,” “geezer,” and other disparaging remarks sprinkle our language when we talk about them. Meanwhile, despite some improvement, the elderly are often portrayed in stereotypical ways on television and in movies (Lee, Carpenter, & Meyers, 2007).

How true is this negative image? What do we know of physical and psychological changes among the elderly? How much of what we think we know about aging and the elderly is a myth, and how much is reality? Gerontologists have paid special attention to answering these questions (Novak, 2012).

Biological changes certainly occur as we age. The first signs are probably in our appearance. Our hair begins to turn gray, our (male) hairlines recede, and a few wrinkles set in. The internal changes that often accompany aging are more consequential, among them being that (a) fat replaces lean body mass, and many people gain weight; (b) bone and muscle loss occur; (c) lungs lose their ability to take in air, and our respiratory efficiency declines; (d) the functions of the cardiovascular and renal (kidney) systems decline; (e) the number of brain cells declines, as does brain mass overall; and (f) vision and hearing decline. Cognitive and psychological changes also occur. Learning and memory begin declining after people reach their seventies; depression and other mental and/or emotional disorders can set in; and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, can occur.

Close-up of a man getting a facial

Because our society values youthfulness, many people try to do their best not to look old.

All these conditions yield statistics such as follows: about half of people 65 or older have arthritis or high blood pressure; almost one-fifth have coronary heart disease; more than one-fifth have diabetes; and about 60 percent of women in their seventies have osteoporosis (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & The Merck Company Foundation, 2007; Crawthorne, 2008).

Still, the nature and extent of all these changes vary widely among older people. Some individuals are frail at 65, while others remain vigorous well into their seventies and beyond. People can be “old” at 60 or even 50, while others can be “young” at 80. Many elders are no longer able to work, but others remain in the labor force. All in all, then, most older people do not fit the doddering image myth and can still live a satisfying and productive life (Rowe et al., 2010).

Enhancing Vitality for Successful Aging

To what extent are the effects of biological and psychological aging the inevitable results of chronological aging? Gerontologists are still trying to understand what causes these effects, and their explanations center on such things as a declining immune system, the slowing of cellular replication, and other processes that need not concern us here.

One thing is clear: We can all take several steps to help us age better, because what we do as we enter our older years matters much more than genetics (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & The Merck Company Foundation, 2007; Crawthorne, 2008). To the extent this is true, the effects of biological and psychological aging are not necessarily inevitable, and “successful aging” is possible. The steps highlighted in the gerontological literature are by now almost a cliché, but regular exercise, good nutrition, and stress reduction stand at the top of most gerontologists’ recommendations for continued vitality in later life. In fact, Americans live about ten years less than an average set of genes should let them live because they do not exercise enough and because they eat inadequate diets.

Research by social gerontologists suggests at least two additional steps older people can take if they want “successful aging.” The first is involvement in informal, personal networks of friends, neighbors, and relatives. The importance of such networks is one of the most thoroughly documented in the social gerontological literature (Binstock & George, 2006) (see Note 6.23 “Applying Social Research”). Networks enhance successful aging for at least two reasons. First, they provide practical support, such as help buying groceries and visiting the doctor, to the elderly who need it. Second, they help older people maintain their self-esteem, meet their desire for friendships, and satisfy other emotional needs.

Children and Our Future

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

An increasing number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Almost 6 million children, or about 8 percent of all children, live in a household headed by a grandparent, up from 4.5 million in 2000. Grandparents are the sole caregiver for almost 3 million of these children because the child’s parents are absent for several reasons: The parents may have died, they may be in jail or prison or have been unable to deal with substance abuse, a child may have been removed from a parent because of parental abuse, or a child may have been abandoned.

In the remaining households where a parent is present, grandparents (usually the grandmother) are still the primary caregivers or at least play a major role in raising the child; the same is true of many grandparents who live near their grown child’s home. In today’s faltering economy, many grandparents are also helping their children out with the expenses of raising their grandchild and running a home. As a family expert with AARP explained, “Grandparents have become the family safety net, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. While they will continue to enjoy their traditional roles, including spending on gifts for grandchildren, I see them increasingly paying for the extras that parents are struggling to keep up with—sports, camps, tutoring or other educational needs, such as music lessons.”

Estella Hyde, 65, and her husband live near Erie, Pennsylvania. They began raising their granddaughter, who started college in fall 2011, when she was one-year-old after her mother said she did not want to raise her. Ms. Hyde called for more government assistance for people in her situation: “It never happens in a happy situation where a son or daughter comes and says, ‘I need you to raise a child for me.’ We were very lucky, we were able to financially take care of her and support her. But many grandparent caregivers need other sources of assistance.”

Many grandparents consider the caregiving and financial support they provide for a grandchild to be both a joy and a privilege. But as their numbers grow, many such grandparents are also finding their involvement to also be somewhat of a physical and/or financial burden. As their numbers continue to grow, it will be important for the federal and state governments to provide them the assistance that Estella Hyde advocated.

Sources: Whitley & Kelley, 2007; Yen, 2011

A second step for successful aging suggested by scholarly research is religious involvement (Moberg, 2008), which enhances psychological well-being for at least two reasons. As people worship in a congregation, they interact with other congregants and, as just noted, enhance their social support networks. Moreover, as they practice their religious faith, they reduce their stress and can cope better with personal troubles. For both these reasons, attendance at religious services and the practice of prayer are thought to enhance psychological well-being among older people. Some elders cannot attend religious services regularly because they have health problems or are no longer able to drive a car. But prayer and other private devotional activities remain significant for many of them. To the extent that religion makes a difference for elders’ well-being, health-care facilities and congregations should do what they can to enable older adults to attend religious services and to otherwise practice their religious faith.

Applying Social Research

Friendships and Successful Aging

As the text discusses, social networks improve the lives of older Americans by providing both practical and emotional support. Early research on social networks and aging focused more on relatives than on friends. Rebecca G. Adams, former president of the Southern Sociological Society, was one of the first sociologists to emphasize the role that friends can also play in the lives of the elderly. She interviewed seventy older women who lived in a Chicago suburb and asked them many questions about the extent and quality of their friendships.

In one of her most important findings, Adams discovered that the women reported receiving more help from friends than other researchers had assumed was the case. The women were somewhat reluctant to ask friends for help but did so when family members were not available and when they would not overly inconvenience the friends whom they asked for help. Adams also found that “secondary” friendships—those involving friends that a woman spent time with but with whom she was not especially close—were more likely than “primary” friendships (very close friendships) to contribute to her interviewees’ psychological well-being, as these friendships enabled the women to meet new people, to become involved in new activities, and thus to be engaged with the larger society. This finding led Adams to conclude that one should not underestimate how important friends are to older people, particularly to the elderly without family. Friends are an important source of companionship and possibly a more important source of service support than most of the current literature suggests.

Adams also asked the women about their friendships with men. The seventy women she interviewed reported 670 friendships, of which only 3.6 percent were with men. (About 91 percent were with other women, and 6 percent were with couples.) Although prior research had assumed that the number of these friendships is small because there are so few unmarried elderly men compared to the number of unmarried elderly women, Adams discovered from her interviews some additional reasons. Her respondents interpreted any friendship with a man as a courting or romantic friendship, which they thought would be viewed negatively by their children and by their peers. Adopting a traditional gender-role orientation, they also expected any man they might marry to be able to protect them physically and financially. Yet they also realized that any elderly man they might know would be very likely unable to do so. For all these reasons, they shied away from friendships with men.

Work by Adams and other social scientists on the friendships and other aspects of the social support systems for older Americans has contributed greatly to our understanding of the components of successful aging. Practically speaking, it points to the need for programs and other activities to make it easier for the elderly to develop and maintain friendships with both sexes to improve their ability to meet both their practical and emotional needs.

Sources: Adams, 1985, 1986; Roscow, 1967

Key Takeaways

  • Certain biological, cognitive, and psychological changes occur as people age. These changes reinforce the negative view of the elderly, but this view nonetheless reflects stereotypes and myths about aging and the elderly.
  • Regular exercise, good nutrition, stress reduction, involvement in personal networks, and religious involvement all enhance successful aging.

For Your Review

  1. Do you think the negative view of older people that is often found in our society is an unfair stereotype, or do you think there is actually some truth to this stereotype? Explain your answer.
  2. Referring back to Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”’s discussion of Émile Durkheim, how does research that documents the importance of personal networks for successful aging reflect Durkheim’s insights?


Adams, R. G. (1985). People would talk: Normative barriers to cross-sex friendships for elderly women. The Gerontologist, 25, 605–611.

Adams, R. G. (1986). Secondary friendship networks and psychological well-being among elderly women. Activities, Adaptation, and Aging, 8, 59–72.

Binstock, R. H., & George, L. K. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of aging and the social sciences (6th ed.). Boston: Academic Press.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & The Merck Company Foundation. (2007). The state of aging and health in America 2007. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Company Foundation.

Crawthorne, A. (2008). Elderly poverty: The challenge before us. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Lee, M. M., Carpenter, B., & Meyers, L. S. (2007). Representations of older adults in television advertisements. Journal of Aging Studies, 21(1), 23–30.

Moberg, D. O. (2008). Spirituality and aging: Research and implications. Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging, 20, 95–134.

Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Roscow, I. (1967). Social integration of the aged. New York, NY: Free Press.

Rowe, J. W., Berkman, L. F., Binstock, R., Boersch-Supan, A., Cacioppo, J., Carsternsen, L., et al. (2010). Policies and politics for an aging America. Contexts, 9(1), 22–27.

Whitley, D. M., & Kelley, S. J. (2007). Grandparents raising grandchildren: A call to action. Washington, DC: Administration for Children and Families.

Yen, H. (2011, August 25). Grandparents play a bigger role in child-rearing. Associated Press. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/grandparents-play-a-bigge_n_937945.html.