Science Briefs

When You're 64...

This book is a wonderful resource for people wanting to understand the current field of aging research with regards to Social Psychology, or vice-versa. These topics certainly represent the future needs of aging research.

By John J. McArdle, PhD

I was 16 years old when I first heard what I think is the only Beatles song dedicated to research on aging. Although I'm sure I was more interested in other things at that time, the verse and tempo of that song, like all other Beatle songs, was forever committed to memory - of course, psychological research has clearly shown that it helps to engage the same stimulus over 1,000 times! How was I to know that at my formative age of 16 years I was near the peak of memory acquisition skills? And who knows how many adults have lived their life with a latent anticipation of "losing their hair, many years from now" mainly as a result of having a good memory?

I now find as I approach what always seemed a far-off age, (an age the young songwriter Paul McCartney himself has recently reached) I have become more interested in the actual facts about aging. For this reason it seemed worthwhile to read a new and important book cleverly titled, "When I'm 64," a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS; see website below). As it turns out, this is a very useful book and well worth a look.

In the case of this book, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) made a request to the NAS to evaluate the NIA portfolio of research in "Social Psychology, Personality, and Adult Developmental Psychology." The NAS study director was a psychologist, Christine Hartel, who is also the director of the National Research Council's Board on Behavioral, Cognitive and Sensory Sciences (NRC-BCSS). The NAS committee roster was composed of leading academic researchers in aging and psychology. Led by the lead author, Laura Carstensen (Stanford University), the committee included Fredda Blanchard Fields (Georgia Tech University), Margaret Gatz (University of Southern California), Todd Heatherton (Dartmouth University), George Lowenstein (Carnegie Mellon University), Denise Park (U. Illinois), Lawrence Pervin (Rutgers University), Richard Petty (Ohio State University), Ilene Seigler (Duke University), Linda Waite (University of Chicago), and Keith Whitfield (Penn State University). Credit is also given to a host of reviewers, led by Lisa Berkman (Harvard University). From my point of view, it is hard to imagine a more prestigious and appropriate group for this complex task.

To start out, the authors recognize that the clever title may be outdated -- "If the song were being written today, 74 or 84 might replace 64, but the questions would reflect the same uneasiness about aging." (p.9). In this way any relief we feel about being further away from "old age" is balanced by the data showing the large number of us who are headed for these ages (e.g., by 2030, 22% of the U.S. population will 64+ and 9% will be 84+). However, in the midst of potentially dire forecasts, the book offers a fairly upbeat discussion about aging. It shows us the many ways the experimental paradigms and practical results from Social Psychology can be used in Aging research, and vice-versa (see Blanchard-Fields, 2005).

Using prior research, the authors point out the "balance between gains and losses continues to include growth as we age" (p.20). And "...older people are more likely to pursue goals and expand their horizons and generate new social contacts" (p. 24). And "adults engage in a sort of pruning process, beginning long before old age, in which emotionally close relationships are retained while more peripheral relationships are increasingly excluded." (p.25). "Even on cognitive tasks known to show age-related decline, like source memory, older people (60-75) perform better when the source concerns emotionally significant characteristics of people" (p.29). And "... older people are able to change their behavior. Medication adherences is better among older than middle-aged adults, attributed in part to more stable daily routines" (p.40-41). "There is considerable evidence that, with age, people grow more interested in emotional satisfaction and less interested in seeking novelty." (p.42) On the other hand, "...older people may be more likely to base evaluations on the first information presented... If decision making is somewhat stressful because of holding attitudes with low confidence, decision making will be avoided." (p.48) And "...many older adults are compromised in the cognitive domain necessary to process new information and make decisions based on that information." (p.55) And "Decisions about health care may be particularly susceptible to the influence of emotions because they often involve emotionally charged tradeoffs." (p.57) These and other helpful facts about the balance help us to deal with our current "uneasiness about aging."

The overall conclusions of the NAS committee deliberations are clearly and repeatedly stated: Based on the available evidence, the committee determined that the most promising research directions for the social aspects of aging research can be organized around four broad issues:

  1. Motivation and Behavioral Change (Chapter 3) - How can we get older people to initiate and to maintain healthy patterns of living?

  2. Socioemotional Influences on Decision Making (Chapter 4) - While cognitive abilities decline and impair decision making, is there stability and even improvement in automatic, intuitive, and emotional aspects of cognitive processes?

  3. Social Engagement and Cognition (Chapter 5) - Can social relationships, social interactions, and physical activities affect cognitive functioning at older ages?

  4. The Impact of Stereotypes on Self and Others (Chapter 6) - How can we deal with "ageism" which affects the opportunities that individuals are afforded during the later years of life?

These are big questions, and the book does not claim to answer them completely. Instead, the authors try to show how findings from several areas of psychological research provide reasonably good starting points for more nuanced answers. A big benefit of this book comes from the detailed but practical overview of each of the four topics. Although detailed results are summarized and a great set of references included (pp. 95-117), the authors consistently summarize their empirical results in common language for easy access to most readers. I have heard about many of these results, but I didn't really know all these important results or their sources. In all cases the "Conclusions" sections in each of these chapters are well crafted and easy to understand and these put the rest of the work in a practical perspective. As a result, this book tells a short but important story about aging in the United States, and this scholarly approach is in stark contrast to a popular magazine treatment of similar topics (e.g., Newsweek, March 26, 2007).

An NAS committee report is a special document. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln, following the advice of many others (especially AAAS president A.D. Bache) created the NAS to be an independent advisory board to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government. I highlight this here because the continued emphasis on objectivity in government funded science is an outstanding feature of the NAS work. The people chosen for an NAS committee are special as well - they are leaders in the scientific field who promise to act in an objective fashion about the problem at hand. One important NAS rule is that before each meeting each person on the committee needs to publicly state any personal gains from the outcome of the deliberations. This is important because aging is one of those sensitive topics, often filled more with fond hopes and wild speculation than with replicated findings. The NAS approach to a group consensus report sets a reasonable stage for the scientific facts of aging to emerge.

Another tradition at the NAS is to commission review papers by experts in areas, especially areas that require more details. The committee typically gets to hear these papers as presentations and then can include them in the final publication. In this case the committee included six papers:

  1. Initiatives to Motivate Change: A Review of Theory and Practice and Their Implications for Older Adults (by A. Rothman).

  2. A Review of Decision-Making Processes: Weighing the Risks and Benefits of Aging (by M. Mather).

  3. A Social Psychological Perspective on the Stigmatization of Older Adults (by J. A. Richardson & J. N. Shelton).

  4. Measurement: Aging and the Psychology of Self-Report (N. Schwarz)

  5. Optimizing Brief Assessments in Research on Psychology of Aging: A Pragmatic Approach to Self-Report Mechanisms (by J. Krosnick, A.L. Holbrook, & P.S. Visser)

  6. Utility of Brain Imaging Methods in Research on Aging (by C. Hartel & R.L. Buckner).

These papers are relatively short but the topics are interesting, informative, and add depth to each specific issue raised above. They would be useful reading for a course in any of these topics.

Of course, a small book cannot be perfect for everyone. The book generally adheres to the methodology of a broad "life-span" theoretical perspective on aging, and this is an important theme. "Gender, race, socio-economic class, culture and ethnicity are factors that affect virtually all aspects of the health and functioning of older people because of their cumulative effect across the life-span." (p.4) While this approach is provocative, it also highlights a few methodological ideas but the importance of special methodological topics in aging research is very limited (e.g., pps., 71-77, 209-218). These are especially important topics when it comes to making suggestions for new research for young scientists (p. 247).

For example, the book describes many empirical results based on comparisons of "Young versus Old" people, and points out how these are descriptively interesting. However it is also clear that this observational design does not assume a specific population of interest, and does not permit a proper inference about what would happen to any of us as we grow old. To repeat a common dictum from life-span research -- "age differences between people" are what we estimate, but "age changes within people" are what we are after. As aging does not impact all persons the same way, more importance needs to be placed on the measurement of individual differences within persons who are the same age, and of intra-individual variability within a person over time (see Nesselroade, 2001).

One way to deal with this problem in cross-sectional studies is to look at people who are the same age and then study their other differences, especially "life histories" or "life courses." Another way is to use longitudinal studies to measure age changes directly within a person. Of course, due to its time consuming nature it is very hard for any researcher, young or old, to initiate a longitudinal study. However, thanks to prior support from the NIA, it is now remarkably easy for anyone to tap into archival data to answer these questions. For example, the National Archive on Computerized Databases in Aging (NACDA; website below) has hundreds of relevant datasets available to virtually any researcher. One important source of longitudinal aging data is the Health and Retirement Study (HRS; website below; see Rodgers et al, 2003; Hauser & Willis, 2005) where the newest set of psychosocial survey data can be relevant for many theoretical questions raised in this book. At the very least, a database like the HRS can be used as an initial proving ground for further ideas.

One of the biggest problems with longitudinal studies comes when researchers make inferences from correlations over time as if they were the result of controlled manipulations. The fine line between manipulated-experimental studies and observational-correlational studies is touched on in this book, but these differences seem critical to the success of aging research. Many of the most important aging findings are confounded by both cumulative advantages (e.g., only the healthy can participate) and selective survival (e.g., the participants need to be alive) so the limits of longitudinal inference require caution and even newer methods of analysis (e.g., McArdle, et al, 2000; McArdle et al, 2006). These problems of inference are not solved by the publication of one small experimental manipulation after the other, but the accumulation of small studies may allow sturdy results to follow. Hopefully resources such as the NACDA files can continue to be a repository for collecting many experimental studies. The availability of the data from the ACTIVE clinical trial of cognitive training (see website below, and Wolinsky et al, 2006) is a good example.

SUMMARY

This book is a wonderful resource for people wanting to understand the current field of aging research with regards to Social Psychology, or vice-versa. These topics certainly represent the future needs of aging research, and it is likely these recommendations to the NIA will become funding priorities. This book is helpful as a source of references to current research, but I think it will work best in provoking ideas about specific researches. The authors frequently mention "an entirely unexplored question that is worthy of systematic evaluation" (p. 79), and these are the important parts of the book. My additional advice is that I hope young researchers will pay attention to longitudinal and experimental design inferences, and use existing national databases to test out their best ideas. Because this book is both a description of research findings and a generation of research ideas, it will be a benefit to both old and young researchers alike!

After all is said and done, we are all inevitably getting older. It is very good to hear that there are some possible "gains due to age" amidst all the "losses due to age." The social aspects of aging highlighted in this book go a long way towards dealing with the facts of aging we need to live with in the near future. I hope that "When You're 64" someone "will still need you, will still feed you," or at least this will be a verse that people in your life will think they remember.

REFERENCES

Carstensen, L.L. and Hartel, C.R. (Eds). When I'm 64. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press (Costs: Book $48.60, PDF download $41.50, bundle $63.50)
http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11474

Health and Retirement Study (HRS).
http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu/

National Archive for Computerized Data on Aging (NACDA)
http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/NACDA/

ACTIVE data.
http://webapp.icpsr.umich.edu/cocoon/NACDA-STUDY/04248.xml

Blanchard-Fields, F. (2005). Introduction to the special section on emotion-cognition interactions and the aging mind. Psychology and Aging, 20, 539-541.

Hauser, R. M., & Willis, R. J. (2005). Survey design and methodology in the Health and Retirement Study and the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. In L. J. Waite (Ed.), Aging, health, and public policy: Demographic and economic perspectives (pp. 209-235). New York: Population Council.

McArdle, J. J., Small, B. J., Backman, L., & Fratiglioni, L. (2005). Longitudinal models of growth and survival applied to the early detection of Alzheimer's disease. Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, 18(4), 234-241.

McArdle, J.J., Ferrer-Caja, E., Hamagami, F. & Woodcock, R.W. (2002). Comparative longitudinal multilevel structural analyses of the growth and decline of multiple intellectual abilities over the life-span. Developmental Psychology, 38 (1) 115-142.

Nesselroade, J. R. (2001). Intraindividual variability in development within and between individuals. European Psychologist, 6 (3), 87-193.

Rodgers, W. L., Ofstedal, M. B., & Herzog, A. R. (2003). Trends in scores on tests of cognitive ability in the elderly U.S. population, 1993-2000. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58B, S338-S346.

Wolinsky, F.D., Unverzagt, F.W., Smith, D.M., Jones, R., Wright. E. & Tennstedt, S.L. (2006). The Effects of the ACTIVE Cognitive Training Trial on Clinically Relevant Declines in Health-Related Quality of Life. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 61:S281-S287

About the Author

Dr. John McArdle is now Senior Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) where he is Quantitative Area Head. Dr. McArdle received his B.A. in Psychology at Franklin & Marshall College, M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology at Hofstra University, conducted Post-Doctoral research in Psychology at the University of Denver, and worked (for 20 years) as a Professor of Quantitative Psychology at the University of Virginia. Dr. McArdle develops and teaches about cutting-edge statistical techniques in longitudinal life-span research. He is director of the US National Growth and Change Study funded by the National Institute on Aging, he won an NIH-MERIT award for research in 2005, and he teaches the Advanced Training Institute on Longitudinal Research for the American Psychological Association.