Gerontologists concur that there is a myriad of changes that take place in our bodies as we age. The changes range from those that are biological in nature to those that are physical, social and psychological. Various factors have been identified as affecting the nature and the direction of these changes. These include the lifestyle of the individual, social and cultural support among others.
Biological Changes in Late Adulthood
Perhaps the most notable changes that take place in our bodies as we age are biological in nature. Ketron (2008) is of the view that the aged have the potential to develop both physically and biologically as they progress in life. However, most of the biological processes slow down, and this manifests itself in the physical appearance of the individual. Most of the organs fail, and they call attention on themselves. As such, the individual is reduced to paying attention to these organs and foregoing other exciting activities that previously were part of their lives.
Spinal disc atrophy is the reduction in mass of the spinal muscles, which is one of the experiences of those aged above sixty years (Ketron 2008: 29). This makes them assume a characteristic stoop stature. Males shrink about one inch in height annually, while women experience a loss of two inches within the same period (Ketron 2008: 30). There is reduction in weight as more and more muscle is lost. However, the fatty tissues that had been accumulated in early and middle adulthood persist. As such, the limbs of the aged individual appear thin and emaciated due to loss of the muscles, but the fatty subcutaneous layer is present (Stephenson 2007: 67). The reduction in weight is also brought about by the loss of bones. The latter is precipitated by the change in the chemical composition of the bones. Excessive loss of bone tissue may lead to osteoporosis, a condition that afflicts more than sixty percent of people aged above seventy years in America (Stephenson 2007: 59).
By the age of ninety years, the brain of the average human being would have lost about ten percent of its original weight (Ketron 2008: 38). This is brought about by the shrinkage of neurons in the cerebral cortex gray matter of the brain. The white matter that contains the nerve cells is also greatly reduced, further leading to the loss of the weight. About twenty-five percent of the cerebellum cells and twenty percent of the hippocampus cells are also lost by the age of ninety (Stephenson 2007: 67). The brain ceases to produce myelin by the age of seventy years. All of these changes have the effect of greatly reducing the cognitive competencies of the aged.
Other biological changes include the reduction in the strength and capacity of the heart. Sexual strength is also lost. Organs start to wear and tear, and as a result, there is increased likelihood of organ failure. The skin sags, and wrinkles and furrows become prominent.
It has been noted that health and fitness considerably affects the aging process. Fitness increases the strength and vigor of the muscles. This in turn improves the strength of the individual. The heart and other organs become more active. Blood flow is enhanced and morbidity greatly reduced. Physical exercise improves the elasticity of the muscles, making the body appear more trim and firm. A healthy diet improves the chemical composition of the bones, and the risk of osteoporosis is minimized.
A Contrast between the Declined Competencies in Late Adults and the Benefits of Practical Knowledge and Life Experiences
There is a considerable decline in the competencies of the aged when several of their acuities are considered. The loss of the brain tissues described above leads to the reduction of the individual’s cognitive ability as they age. Memory retention is poor. After the age of sixty, dementia becomes a problem. However, it is important to note at this juncture that the loss of the brain cells is not the sole cause of these problems. Dendrites continue to grow even as the brain cells are dying. This more than compensates for the loss of some of the neurons, and as such, the intellectual ability of the aged is restored to some extent (Ketron 2008: 35).
The language of the aged is also affected. The loss in memory reduces the number of words that they can use. They are also not able to learn new words or language. The rate of their stimuli perception and processing is slowed down. As such, they are likely to lose their sight and sense of smell. Other cognitive capabilities like the analysis and solving of problems is greatly reduced. This can be put down to the changes that are taking place in their brains. All of these factors combine to make the experiences of the aged more and more unpleasant. They have to reduce the pace at which they were initially moving with in life. They rely more on the other around them for survival.
However, the negative effects of these changes are countered by the fact that the individual has already accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experiences in life that serves them well during this crisis. Their life experiences make it possible for them to solve problems despite the fact that their mental acuity is greatly reduced. It is true that they may not be able to analyze the problem logically. However, they look at it from the perspective of their life experiences. However, in some cases where the aged is affected by ailments like Alzheimer and acute dementia, these life experiences may not be as beneficial.
People’s Ability to Cope with Dying
The terminally ill and the aged live with the perpetual fear of dying anytime. They are not the only ones who are affected by this fact; their family and friends also have to live with the realization that their loved ones may die anytime.
Several factors affect the ability of the individual to cope with dying. Biological factors such as age, gender and underlying medical conditions among others are some of these factors (Stephenson 2007: 61). Women, children and the sick are considered to have a reduced capacity of coping with dying than men, adults and the healthy. The psychological disposition of the individual also plays a vital role in this. A person who is vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression is likely to cope less effectively with dying.
Social cultural factors also affect the ability of the individual to cope with dying. Those people with strong social networks and support system fair much better than those without. If the culture from which the individual comes from values support for the dying and for those who are affected by the same, the experience is made bearable.
Factors Influencing the Grieving of a Loved One
Wess (2007: 41) opines that just as we are different from each other, the way we grieve the loss of a loved one is also different. Individual and circumstantial factors affect the way that we grieve.
A person who is naturally disposed to stress and anxiety finds it hard to grieve the loss of a loved one. The personality of the survivor is also vital. There are those of us who withdraw when we are faced with such a crisis, while others seek the help and support of others in the society. The personality of the deceased is also important. The gravity of the grieving is accentuated if the deceased was the kind of person that the survivor would have wished to spend time with (Wess 2007: 47). Children are also considered to be more affected by the loss of a loved one than the men and adults. This may be a stereotypical position, but it is a highly held belief.
The relationship between the deceased and the survivor will determine the severity of the loss. Usually, the loss is aggravated for those who were close to the deceased than those who were not. In addition, if the personal belief of the grieving person is of the view that people go to a better place after death, their grieving will not be as severe. The grieving is also affected by other crises that are present in the life of that that is grieving (Wess 2007: 45). Have there been recent deaths or other forms of crises?
Gerontologists and geriatrics are of the view that the aged are affected by many changes in their lives. These include biological changes such as loss of muscles and strength. The health and fitness of the individual will affect their aging experience. Healthy people who exercise more are likely to face fewer problems as they age than those who are not.
Ketron, M. L. (2008). Biological changes in late adulthood. New York: Free Press.
Stephenson, R. O. (2007). Human development. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Wess, M. (2007). “Bringing hope and healing to grieving patients with cancer.” Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 107(7). 41-47.