Thursday, August 19, 2010

Older and Sadder

Think of someone who is depressed, cantankerous, lonely, sexually inactive and forgetful. Did an elderly person come to mind? In one survey, 65 percent of psychology students agreed that “most older people are lonely and isolated,” and in another survey, 64 percent of medical students agreed that “major depression is more prevalent among the elderly than among younger persons.” Exposure to dubious media depictions of the aged begins early in life. In a study of Disney children’s films, investigators found that 42 percent of elderly characters are portrayed in a less than positive light and as forgetful or crotchety.
Such unflattering renderings also pervade films aimed at adolescents. In a study of popular teen movies, most elderly characters exhibited some negative characteristics, and a fifth fulfilled only off-putting stereotypes.

Contradicting these representations, one research team surveyed adults between the ages of 21 and 40 or older than 60 about their own happiness as well as about their assessment of the happiness of the average person at their current age, aged 30 and aged 70. Young adults predicted that people would become less happy as they got older. Yet older adults were actually happier than younger respondents. Population-based surveys reveal that rates of depression are highest in those between the ages of 25 and 45 and that the happiest group overall is men aged 65 and older. Happiness increases through the late 60s and perhaps even 70s. In one study of 28,000 Americans, a third of 88-year-olds reported being “very happy,” and the happiest individuals surveyed were the oldest. Indeed, the odds of being happy increased 5 percent with every decade Interestingly, research by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen demonstrates that compared with younger people, older people are more likely to recall positive than negative information, perhaps accounting partly for their often surprisingly rosy outlook on life. Older people are not generally lacking in sexual desire either. In a national survey, more than three quarters of men aged 75 to 85 and half of their female counterparts reported interest in sex.

Moreover, 73 percent of people between the ages of 57 and 64 were sexually active, as were 53 percent of those 64 to 74 years old. Among 75- to 85-year-olds, 26 percent said they were sexually active. Finally, cognitive abilities do not fade dramatically with age. We do experience some memory loss as the years pass, especially minor forgetfulness and difficulty retrieving words while speaking. Our ability to manipulate numbers, objects and images may also decline some in our later years. But even at age 80, in the absence of serious illness affecting the brain, general intelligence and verbal abilities are not much worse than they were decades earlier. Furthermore, research on creative accomplishments indicates that in some disciplines, such as history or fiction writing, many people produce their best work in their 50s or even decades later. Thus, to tweak an old saying, “You can teach an old dog new tricks … and a lot more.”

Source of Information : Scientific American Mind March-April 2010

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