How Do We Change As We Age?

Dr Laura Jenkins

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As a cognitive psychologist I have always been interested in how the mind and intellectual abilities develop. My PhD looked at how abilities such as working memory can develop from childhood and I investigated this by looking at how both adult and children could remember a series of coloured squares and shapes.

I provided explanations as to why I thought these changes occurred, with reasons being more experience as people age and more opportunity to practise the working memory abilities. In general, my PhD showed that of course, adults remembered more shapes and squares than younger children, but the children of approximately 10 years old did remember just as much as the adults, meaning that the development of working memory could stabilise by the age of 10 years old.

Cognitive psychology involves the study of internal mental processes.

As I am no longer in a research role, I tend to just read about how we age now instead of putting this into research practice. I have recently delivered a lecture to second year undergraduate students on ageing and I found it a very positive experience to do some further reading in the areas that were not covered in my own research but that could be linked in some way.


One of the generic questions asked in the lecture was simply ‘how do we change as we age?’. For me, I could answer this simply in the context of working memory, cognition and intelligence as I had evidence from my research. I did notice that memory and intellectual abilities (such as reasoning and spatial orientation) can decline in a natural way with age, but I found it really difficult to consider other abilities such as personality and emotion.

While preparing for my lecture, I found some interesting results. As people get older, in general, they change in terms of warmth, self-growth and emotional stability. Some people use their personal experiences to shape how they respond in future instances, and some people can have a more natural growth which is shaped by how they believe they should react in different situations.

Disengagement theory suggests that as we get older, we lose contact with friends and become less engaged with social activities. For some people, it is just because they have busy lives and prefer to focus upon work achievements for a short time, but in some instances, this could be due to a more negative reason if the person is purposely disengaging and trying to intentionally withdraw themselves. 

Before my reading, I did not realise one aspect of a person that can remain stable is personality as this does not always change. I noticed that this was specifically in relation to six main personality traits discussed in some of the studies I read. I came across a piece of research which involved 3,910 New Zealanders aged 20–80. Researchers used questionnaires measuring personality, specifically the personality traits known as the Big 5 (or sometimes the Big 6).

We become less agreeable as we age.

The Big 6 personality traits are also known as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, with the later addition of honesty-humility. In their study, researchers gave the participants the questionnaires on two occasions, each two years apart, to see how personality could change over the course of a two-year span. It was found that agreeableness (the degree to which you are warm, friendly and tactful) was least stable, with people becoming less agreeable as they aged. In some ways I feel that this personality trait can depend upon who you are in a situation with, whether you enjoy your surroundings or whether your emotional well-being is at a high or low point in your life.

Unlike agreeableness, extraversion (the degree to which someone is sociable, outgoing and talkative) was the most stable trait. The people who were very extraverted during questionnaire 1 were also then seen as very extraverted I questionnaire 2, suggesting that life events and personal growth cannot influence how extraverted a person is. One of the results indicated that as people age between 20–50, their personality becomes more stable, however once people become the age of 50 and increase to 80, their personality stability can decrease.

We can remain stable in terms of some personality traits.

From my own research on memory, I believe that one of the reasons for this decrease in stability could be due to illness and ageing. For example, people who develop disorders such as Alzheimer’s or dementia may have a fluctuation in their personality stability and may behave differently to what they once did. This is often due to changes in the brain and not changes from the outside world or family.

Although the research does suggest that we can remain stable in terms of some personality traits, we must not forget that in some of the studies, participants were being asked to estimate what they believed their personality to be at that time. There is evidence that suggest that people tend to overestimate changes, meaning that results reported in studies may not be an accurate reflection of real life results and that there may be other factors such as those personal experiences to consider.

Some things change but other don’t as it often depends upon the type of research you read. I often feel that people will direct their reading to what they believe first before going on to read research from both ends of the change spectrum and this can hinder the opportunity to find the constructs within a person that may or may not change.


Dr Laura Jenkins is currently a Teaching Associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, who focuses upon teaching areas of Cognitive Psychology. She is also a member of the British Psychological Society. Laura completed her PhD at Northumbria University, in Newcastle, where she has also taught the core areas of Psychology within the Department. Laura sits on the editorial board of Psychreg Journal of Psychology


 


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