By: Ashli Abernathy, LPC
Taking the life-span perspective on aging can positively influence our mental health and benefit future generations. Aging is typically associated with negative stereotypes and health issues. Still, a growing amount of research is supporting the life-span perspective on development by highlighting the positive aspects of aging that can help us understand what it means to age successfully. Traditional approaches to understanding human development typically have focused on the dramatic developmental changes that build our foundation to be healthy adults from birth to adolescence and then the decline into old age. Life-span development recognizes that there is still great growth and change experienced after adolescence and emphasizes the positive aspects of getting older. Here are some examples of positive ways to think about aging through the life-span perspective:
Development is lifelong: Considering that childhood and adolescence represent about a quarter of our lives and that late adulthood has the longest span of any developmental period, it’s important to know how our capacity to grow and learn continues throughout life. This can positively influence our behaviors and capacity to age successfully. There is increasing evidence that individuals ages 60-79 years of age are able to lead healthier, more active, and productive lives than earlier generations (Santrock, 2019).
Age is a number: The foundation of the life-span perspective believes that development continues throughout the life-span. It’s multifaceted and complex, requiring us to view age and development from multiple lenses at different angles to get an accurate picture of how the influences of biology, culture, and the individual affect their individual growth. Some experts believe we overemphasize our chronological age as it is not a reliable indicator of our biological, psychological, and socioemotional age. Many factors and variables contribute to our development that our chronological age cannot accurately reflect.
Depression is not a normal part of aging: Just because mental health in older adults is a major concern, they do not have a higher incidence of mental disorders than younger adults. A major concern is that 80% of the older adults who do experience episodes of depression do not receive treatment when we know it can produce significant improvements even in older age.
Longer life expectancy: While scientists believe that our maximum age in the life-span will remain the same for the foreseeable future, we have added more years to our life expectancy in the last century than we have in all previous millennia. That means that most of us can expect to live better for longer due to advancements in technology and society, but our capacity to live past the oldest recorded living age of 122 years old remains the same. That may sound negative, but it means we understand more about the lifespan and how to successfully age.
The pattern of successful aging: Most of us will experience the pattern of normal aging, where our functioning remains relatively stable through our sixties before experiencing a modest decline in our eighties. Successful Aging is when we are able to maintain functioning longer, and the decline is experienced later. Our abilities can be maintained and sometimes can even be improved as we get older. Factors associated with successful aging have been identified as proactive engagement, valued relationships, positive spirit, and access to wellness resources as well as the obvious factors of having an active lifestyle, social support, positive coping skills, and the absence of disease. Even when the disease is present, though, we are seeing an increasing number of adults that are able to continue their active and productive lives with the advancements in modern healthcare. Successful aging can help explain how a 90-year-old woman can graduate with her master’s degree, or John Glenn, at the age of 77 became the oldest astronaut, and the baseball player Satchel Paige was 59 years young when he threw three shutout innings.
There are many positive benefits to taking the perspective of lifespan development on aging. It can help us understand what age is and isn’t and allow us to see aging in a more modern light. With this perspective, we can know our limits and live a more productive and fulfilling life that influences our behaviors to help us age more successfully. We can also empower ourselves and help others by encouraging older adults to be active, social, and to seek help when they may be suffering from depressive symptoms.
References: Santrock, J. W. (2019). Life-span development (17th ed.). McGraw-Hill.