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Psychological Changes of Aging: What to Expect + How to Cope

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Amparo Calderon |

As they age, most people expect to undergo physical changes (like the development of fine lines and wrinkles and gradual loss of height). It’s also commonly known that older people are more prone to physical health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

What many don’t anticipate are the psychological aspects of the aging process. Like the rest of the body, the brain changes as we progress toward old age, leading to differences in how we think and feel. This post explores aspects of psychological aging and discusses how to cope with cognitive and mental disorders that may come with old age.

What Are Psychological Changes?

Psychological changes are changes in how the brain works that impact thinking, emotion, memory, and mood. There are individual differences in how aging affects the brain. It’s possible to experience more subtle psychological changes when you reach an older age. Healthcare providers may be unable to diagnose you with a specific condition, but you may experience challenges impacting your quality of life.

The Psychological Effects of Aging and Why They Occur

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Studies have linked many psychological changes with the aging process. Let’s look at some of the most common problems that develop with age and explore their causes.

Declining Cognitive Function

The brain continues to grow and develop during the first decades of life. As it does, your ability to think critically and solve problems increases. Around the age of 30, the brain reaches peak development. After that, critical brain areas (such as the hippocampus, frontal, and temporal lobe) begin shrinking.

These age-related changes are a natural process that everyone goes through. During their older years, people may need longer to solve a problem than younger people would. It may be more difficult for them to concentrate, and they can become frustrated when pressured to complete a complicated task quickly.

The good news is that not all types of cognitive function decline with age. Vocabulary, verbal reasoning, and reading abilities typically stay the same or improve with age.

Changes in Memory

The same changes that impact cognitive ability can also lead to memory problems in adults. In normal aging, memory problems can mean you forget where you put things, or it takes you more time to remember something you learned as a young adult.

In abnormal aging, memory loss can be more severe and progress to dementia or Alzheimer’s. Chronic medical conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression raise the risk of these neurological disorders (as do smoking, lack of physical activity, and obesity).

Genetics also play a role. If you have family members who developed dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, you’re more likely to develop the condition yourself.

Symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease typically worsen over time.

Reduced Attention Span

The brain changes that occur in older women and men can lead to shorter attention spans. One study found that people over 60 had more difficulty focusing on complex tasks and struggled to tune out distractions than those aged 55 to 59.

However, researchers noted that the reduced attention span didn’t affect all tasks. Older adults may still be able to focus on simple activities for extended periods. How much the person enjoys what they’re doing matters, too — as a result, you may find that you can read a fascinating book for hours but can’t focus on less preferred tasks (like balancing your checkbook) for long.

Decreased Ability to Multitask

As previously explained, changes in the brain can make some types of cognition more complicated with age. One way you might observe this in yourself, or a loved one is in a reduced ability to multitask. When asked to move from one task to another, an older adult may have a more difficult time shifting their mental gears. Due to normal cognitive decline, they might need more time to get started or take longer to get back on task.

Slower Reaction Time

Changes in the brain can affect how quickly messages travel to and from the brain through the nervous system. Specifically, research shows that it takes longer for older adults to process sensory information and then prepare to make movements in response to stimuli. Slower reaction times can increase the risk of accidents when driving, which may make it more difficult for seniors who are aging in place to respond to emergencies (like a fire).

Changes in Emotions and Mood

Changes in emotions and mood often accompany aging — part of this is due to age identity. Older people may experience low self-esteem and lack self-confidence due to their feelings about growing older. Often, older adults face discrimination as well. The media often portrays younger people as having more value, sending messages that older adults are less attractive or capable. These unfair ideas combine with psychological factors (like changes in brain chemicals), leading to feelings of sadness.

Unfortunately, other things can negatively impact emotions and mood with age. Older individuals face psychological stress due to financial problems, grief from losing loved ones, worries about chronic diseases, and making difficult decisions (like whether to remain in their homes as they age). These life stressors interfere with happiness, reducing the quality of life.

In some people, feelings of sadness are more than just temporary shifts in mood. Around 7% of older adults worldwide suffer from clinical depression. Depression is one of the most common mental health problems in the elderly, with symptoms including:

  • Prolonged periods of sadness and hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest and enjoyment in activities they once enjoyed
  • Problems sleeping (or sleeping too much)
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced appetite or intense food cravings
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Thoughts of death, suicide, and self-harm
  • Headaches and chronic pain in the muscles unrelated to any underlying chronic conditions

Clinical depression is often due to low levels of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The good news is that there are medications that can ease depression symptoms.

The Importance of Maintaining a Positive Outlook As We Age

The mind-body connection is powerful, and numerous studies have revealed how we feel affects our physical health. One study published in 2022 found that people with the highest satisfaction with aging were 43% less likely to die during a four-year period than those with a poorer outlook.

Additionally, people who were more optimistic and took aging in stride were less likely to develop health conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease — and had overall better cognitive abilities. This recent research and previous studies around psychological changes in old age suggest that doing your best to cope with aging could raise your life expectancy to enjoy a higher quality of life.

How to Cope with the Psychological Changes of Aging

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Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to manage the psychological effects of aging. These tips can help you maintain a positive outlook and feel your best throughout your golden years.

Maintain Social Connections

People who experience loneliness and social isolation can experience higher rates of depression than those who maintain strong social connections. In other words, having close friendships makes for good mental health.

If you need help meeting people in your age group, attend community events at community centers and senior centers. Getting in touch with your religious faith can also be beneficial, as you can make friends at religious services and events held at your place of worship.

Volunteering is another way to increase your social engagement. Find nonprofit groups and charitable organizations to join and help in whatever way you can. Not only can this be the first step toward making friends, but helping others can also give you a sense of purpose. Part-time work is another way to get out and enjoy interacting with other people.

Pets are another excellent source of companionship. Not only can a furry friend lessen feelings of isolation, but they can also provide opportunities for exercise. For example, you can engage a cat in active play with a wand toy or take a dog for a walk in the park.

Enjoy Personal Growth and Fulfillment

Setting goals for yourself can give you purpose, and when you achieve what you set out to do, you can take pride in your accomplishments. Consider taking up a new hobby, learning a new language, or taking music, art, or cooking lessons. Try out a new physical fitness program like yoga or water aerobics. Get in touch with your spiritual side through prayer and meditation, or sign up for college courses on subjects that interest you (like science or history).

Stay Physically Active

Exercise is essential for both physical and mental health. Physical activity has stress reduction benefits and eases symptoms of depression and anxiety. Plus, exercise can lower your risk of health conditions that are risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that adults aged 65 or older should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise that raises the heart rate (like swimming or walking) or 75 minutes of intense exercise (like jogging or hiking) every week. Work out with friends, or take fitness classes to make exercise a social activity. You can divide the time any way you want to fit your schedule.

In addition to cardiovascular exercise, the CDC recommends two strength-training workouts per week. Strengthening exercises like lifting weights can help you maintain muscle mass as you age. In addition, physical activity that supports muscles can improve mobility.

The CDC also suggests that seniors do balance and posture exercises at least three days per week for good health. This exercise can help decrease your risk of physical injuries due to falls and improve your appearance by correcting problems (like rounded or hunched shoulders).

Keep in mind that these exercise recommendations are general advice. Consult your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program for improving cardiovascular health, balance, and muscle strength.

Prioritize Good Nutrition

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There’s wisdom in the saying you are what you eat. Choosing the right foods can supply your brain and body with the nutrients needed to function correctly. Older adults are at an increased risk of vitamin B12, B6, and folate deficiencies. Research shows that being short on these nutrients is linked to depressive symptoms and cognitive problems in older adults.

A healthy diet for older adults typically includes the following:

  • Fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors
  • Lean proteins like fish, chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of beef and pork
  • Legumes and beans
  • Whole grains like whole wheat, oatmeal, rye, farro, millet, brown rice, and quinoa
  • Low-fat and no-fat dairy products
  • Small quantities of healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and seeds

Try to make your meals rather than eating highly processed restaurant foods and prepackaged or frozen dinners. Consider signing up for a meal delivery kit that sends all the ingredients you need to prepare delicious home-cooked meals. If you struggle with appetite, eat several smaller meals rather than trying to have just breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Get Plenty of Quality Sleep

Older adults generally need 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep daily to support physical health, cognition, and emotional well-being. If you have difficulty sleeping, try sticking to a consistent routine by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, no matter your schedule. Avoid alcohol, heavy meals, and caffeine close to bedtime. Also, limit your exposure to computers, televisions, and mobile devices close to bedtime because the blue light from their screens activates the nervous system and interferes with sleep.

Invest in Hygiene and Self-Care

Taking good care of yourself can help you feel your best. For many older adults, hygiene and self-care involves dealing with urinary incontinence. If you suffer from bladder leaks or loss of bladder control, use incontinence underwear and pads with the correct absorbency levels for your needs. When it comes time to change your incontinence protection, cleanse thoroughly with wipes or a spray, and use a barrier cream to protect your skin from irritation.

Regular bathing and grooming are also important parts of self-care. Modify your bathroom with bars and a shower seat if you struggle to get into the tub or shower. Specially designed brushes, combs, toothbrushes, and other personal care products can help make daily living tasks more accessible if you have joint pain or stiffness.

Why Caregiver Support Is So Important for Mental Health

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In addition to providing practical support, loved ones and professionals who care for older adults can positively impact mental health. Caregivers can double as important friends, helping seniors avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation. Plus, they can spot the signs of severe cognitive decline or mental health disorders and help older adults seek help for those issues. Additionally, caregivers can assist with taking medications and traveling to doctors’ appointments so older adults get the care they need for chronic health conditions that can also impact the brain.

Addressing Mental Health Concerns in Older Adults

As you age, the above tips can make a difference in your mental health and overall well-being. However, people with mental health conditions, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia may need additional care. Mental health professionals experienced in treating seniors can assist. Also, medical doctors may be able to prescribe medications or recommend treatments for managing age-related decline. If you or your loved one needs help, talk to your medical provider, or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s national helpline.

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Sources:

UCSF Memory and Aging Center. (n.d.). Symptoms of healthy aging vs. cognitive impairment. Retrieved from https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/healthy-aging

Alzheimer's Association. (n.d.). Causes and risk factors. Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers/causes-and-risk-factors

Jahn, D. R., Dressel, J. A., Frey, R. F., & Warren, R. A. (2009). Association between urinary incontinence and depressive symptoms in the elderly. Female Pelvic Medicine & Reconstructive Surgery, 15(1), 25-30. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19179843/

Papegaaij, S., Taube, W., & Hortobágyi, T. (2022). Aging, motor skill, and selective neuromotor noise. Journal of Neurophysiology, 127(3), 890-901. Retrieved from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jn.00072.2022

World Health Organization (WHO). (2021). Mental health of older adults. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-of-older-adults

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2019). Positive attitude about aging could help ward off dementia. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/positive-attitude-about-aging-could-boost-health/

National Institute on Aging (NIA). (2021). Loneliness and social isolation: Tips for staying connected. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/loneliness-and-social-isolation-tips-staying-connected

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019). Physical activity and health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019). Physical activity and older adults. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/older_adults/index.htm

National Institute on Aging (NIA). (2021). Good night's sleep. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/good-nights-sleep