Chapter 15


Physical and Cognitive Development

in Middle Adulthood




Chapter Outline


I.        Physical Development

A.     Physical Transitions:  The Gradual Change in the Body’s Capabilities

1.      Middle adulthood is the time when most people first become aware of the gradual changes in their bodies that mark the aging process.

2.      People’s reactions to the physical changes of middle adulthood depend in part on their self-concept.

3.      Society applies a double standard to men and women in terms of appearance.

a)      Older women tend to be viewed in unflattering terms.

4.      Aging men are more frequently perceived as displaying a maturity that enhances their status.

B.     Height, Weight, and Strength:  The Benchmarks of Change

1.      After age 55, bones become less dense and ultimately women lose 2 inches and men lose 1 inch in height.

a)      Women are more prone to declining height due to OSTEOPOROSIS, a condition in which the bones become brittle, fragile, and thin.

b)      Osteoporosis is brought about by a lack of calcium in the body.

c)      Diet (high in calcium) and exercise can reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

2.      Both men and women continue to gain weight in middle adulthood.

a)      The amount of body fat increases.

b)      Exercise and weight control can ameliorate the weight gain.

3.      Throughout middle adulthood, strength gradually decreases.

a)      This is particularly so in the back and leg muscles.

b)      By age 60, people have lost about 10 percent of their maximum strength.

C.     The Senses:  The Sights and Sounds of Middle Age

1.      Starting at age 40, visual acuity - the ability to discern fine spatial detail in both close and distant objects - begins to decline.

a)      The eye's lenses change shape and elasticity.

b)      The lenses become less transparent, which reduces the amount of light entering.

c)      A nearly universal change in eyesight during middle adulthood is the loss of near vision, called PRESBYOPIA.

d)      Declines also occur in depth perception, distance perception, the ability to view the world in three dimensions, and night vision.

e)      Sometimes changes in vision are brought on by a disease called GLAUCOMA, a condition where pressure in the fluid of the eye increases, either because the fluid cannot drain properly or because too much fluid is produced.

(1)   About 1 percent to 2 percent of those over 40 are affected.

(2)   African Americans are particularly susceptible.

(3)   It can be treated if caught early enough.

(4)   If left untreated it can cause blindness.

2.      Hearing undergoes a gradual decline beginning in middle adulthood.

a)      The primary sort of loss is for sounds of high frequency, a problem called PRESBYCUSIS.

(1)   About 12 percent of people between 45 and 65 suffer from presbycusis.

(2)   Men are more prone to hearing loss than women.

(3)   Because the two ears are not always equally affected by hearing loss, sound localization, the ability to detect the origin of a sound, is diminished.

b)      Some hearing loss results from environmental factors, such as loud noises.

c)      The rest are caused by aging, which brings a loss of hair cells in the inner ear.

d)      Also, the eardrum becomes less elastic with age.

D.     Reaction time:  Not-so-slowing Down

1.      Reaction time increases slightly in middle adulthood.

2.      This is due to a gradual loss of muscle in the body and nervous system processing due to aging.

3.      People can compensate by being more careful and practicing the skill.

4.      Exercise can slow this loss.

E.      Sex in Middle Adulthood:  The Ongoing Sexuality of Middle Age

1.      Although the frequency of sexual intercourse decreases with age, sexual activities remain a vital part of most middle-aged adults’ lives.

2.      With children grown and away from home, middle-aged adults have more freedom.

3.      With menopause, women no longer need to practice birth control.

4.      Men typically need more time to get an erection.

5.      The volume of fluid in ejaculation declines.

6.      The production of testosterone also declines.

7.      In women, the walls of the vagina become less elastic and thinner and the vagina shrinks, potentially making intercourse painful.

F.      Starting about age 45, women enter a period known as the FEMALE CLIMACTERIC, the transition from being able to bear children to being unable to do so.

1.      This period lasts about 15 to 20 years.

2.      The most notable sign is MENOPAUSE, the cessation of menstruation.

3.      The process may begin as early as age 40 or as late as age 60.

a)      The production of estrogen and progesterone drop.

b)      Symptoms such as "hot flashes," headaches, feeling dizzy, heart palpitations, and aching joints are common during menopause.

c)      Half of women report no symptoms at all.

4.      Perimenopause is the period beginning around 10 years prior to menopause when hormone production begins to change.

5.      After a year goes by without a menstrual period, menopause is said to have occurred.

6.      Using estrogen replacement therapy (ERT), symptoms are alleviated and a variety of problems are reduced, such as

a)      osteoporosis

b)      heart disease

c)      colon cancer

d)      stroke

e)      skin elasticity

f)       There may be risks associated with ERT.

(1)   breast cancer

(2)   abnormal blood clots

(3)   cancer of the uterine lining

7.      It was thought that about 10 percent of women had psychological problems associated with menopause.

a)      depression

b)      anxiety

c)      crying spells

d)      lack of concentration

e)      irritability

8.      It is now believed that women's expectations about menopause relate to their experience of menopause.

a)      Indian women have few symptoms and look forward to the social advantages of being past the childbearing age.

b)      Mayan women also have few symptoms and look forward to the freedom of being past childbearing age.

G.     Men experience some changes during middle age that are collectively referred to as the MALE CLIMACTERIC, the period of physical and psychological change relating to the male reproductive system that occurs during late middle age.

1.      The most common is the enlargement of the prostate gland.

a)      By age 40, 10 percent of men have enlarged prostates.

b)      Symptoms are problems with urination, including difficulty starting to urinate and frequent need to urinate during the night.

c)      Men still produce sperm and can father children through middle age.

II.                 Health

A.     Wellness and Illness:  The Ups and Downs of Middle Age

1.      According to the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every adult should get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity daily.

a)      walking

b)      gardening

c)      climbing stairs

d)      reduces risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, weight gain, and hypertension

e)      psychological benefits of sense of control and well-being

2.      The vast majority of people in middle age face no chronic health difficulties and have fewer accidents and infections because they are more careful and have built up immunities over their life.

3.      Some adults, however, are particularly susceptible to chronic diseases in middle adulthood.

a)      Arthritis typically begins after age 40.

b)      Diabetes is most likely to occur in people between the ages of 50 and 60.

c)      Hypertension (high blood pressure) is one of the most frequent chronic disorders found in middle age.

d)      The death rate for people between 40 and 60 has declined dramatically; it is less than half of what it was in 1940.

e)      Some people are genetically susceptible to chronic diseases, such as hypertension.

4.      Developmental Diversity:  Individual Variation in Health:  Ethnic and Gender Differences

a)      Social and environmental factors are related to health:  African Americans in the U.S. have twice the death rate of Caucasians.

(1)   It is related to SES (socioeconomic status) because when death rates are compared to whites and African Americans of the same SES, African Americans' death rate drops below whites'.

(2)   Poorer people are more apt to experience a disabling illness.

(3)   Poorer people tend to work in more dangerous occupations.

b)      During middle age, women experience more non-life threatening illnesses than men but men experience more serious illnesses.

(1)   Women smoke less.

(2)   Women drink less alcohol.

(3)   Women have less dangerous jobs.

(4)   Medical research has typically studied diseases of men with all male samples; the medical community is only now beginning to study women's health issues.

B.     Stress in Middle Adulthood

1.      Stress continues to have a significant impact on health in middle age.

2.      According to psychoneuroimmunologists, who study the relationship between the brain, the immune system, and psychological factors, stress produces three main consequences.

a)      Direct physiological outcomes – e.g., increased blood pressure and hormonal activity.

b)      Leads to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, cutting back on sleep, drinking, or taking other drugs.

c)      People under a lot of stress are less likely to seek medical care.

C.     The A’s and B’s of Coronary Heart Disease:  Linking Health and Personality

1.      More men die in middle age of diseases of the heart and circulatory system than any other cause.

2.      Both genetic and experiential characteristics are involved.

a)      Heart disease runs in families.

b)      Men are more likely to suffer than women, and risks increase with age.

3.      There are several environmental and behavioral factors.

a)      cigarette smoking

b)      high fat and cholesterol in diet

c)      lack of physical exercise

4.      Evidence suggests that some psychological factors are also related to heart disease.

a)      People with TYPE A BEHAVIOR PATTERN, which is characterized by competitiveness, impatience, and a tendency toward frustration and hostility, are more susceptible to heart disease.

(1)   They engage in polyphasic activities - multiple activities carried out simultaneously.

(2)   They are easily angered and become verbally and nonverbally hostile if prevented from reaching their goals.

(3)   Heart rate and blood pressure rise, epinephrine and norepinephrine increase.

(4)   Wear and tear on heart produces disease.

(5)   Evidence is only correlational so we cannot say Type A behavior causes heart disease.

(6)   Most experts now say it is the negative emotion and hostility that are the major links to heart disease.

(7)   Most research has been done on men; we need to research women to see if Type A women are equally susceptible.

b)      By contrast, people with TYPE B BEHAVIOR PATTERN, which is characterized by noncompetitiveness, patience, and a lack of aggression, have less than half the risk of coronary disease that Type A people have.

D.     Cancer is the second leading cause of death in middle age.

1.      Many forms of cancer respond well to treatment.

2.      40 percent are still alive 5 years after diagnosis.

3.      Cancer is unchecked cell growth.

4.      Cancer is associated with several risk factors.

a)      Genetics (family history of cancer) raises the risk.

b)      Poor nutrition, smoking, alcohol use, exposure to sunlight, exposure to radiation, and exposure to occupational hazards such as certain chemicals raise the risk.

5.      Treatment of cancer can take a variety of forms.

a)      Radiation therapy involves the use of radiation to destroy a tumor.

b)      Chemotherapy involves the controlled ingestion of toxic substances meant to poison the tumor.

c)      Surgery may be used to remove the tumor.

d)      Early diagnosis is crucial.

(1)   Mammography, a weak X-ray, is used to detect breast cancer.

(2)   Women over 50 should routinely have one.

(3)   Younger women have denser breasts and the problem of false positives increases.

(4)   Mammograms are expensive.

6.      Increasing evidence suggests that cancer is also related to psychological factors.

a)      The death rate of women with breast cancer was much lower for those who had a "fighting spirit" or those who denied they had the disease.

b)      People with close family ties are less likely to develop cancer.

c)      Cancer patients who are habitually optimistic report less physical and psychological distress.

d)      Participating in group therapy reduces anxiety and pain and increases survival rates.

e)      A positive psychological outlook may be related to a tendency to adhere to a strict treatment regimen.

f)       A positive psychological outlook may boost the body's immune system.

III.               Cognitive Development

A.     Does Intelligence Decline in Adulthood?

1.      Cross-sectional studies — which test people of different ages at the same point in time — clearly showed that older subjects scored less well than younger subjects on traditional IQ tests.

a)      Intelligence peaks at 18, stays steady until mid-20s, and declines till end of life.

b)      These studies suffer from the cohort effect — influences associated with growing up at a particular historical time that affect people of a particular age.

(1)   may be less educated

(2)   may have less stimulation on job

(3)   may have poorer health

c)      Cross-sectional studies may underestimate intelligence in older subjects.

2.      Longitudinal studies, in which the same people are studied periodically over a span of time, revealed different developmental patterns in intelligence.

a)      Adults showed stable and even increasing IQ scores until mid-30s and some to mid-50s, then declined.

(1)   Because of repeated testing, some people remember some of the test items, called the practice effect.

(2)   People become more comfortable and relaxed after repeated testings.

(3)   Subjects leave or die during time span; those who remain may be healthier, more stable, and psychologically more positive than the people who dropped out.

b)      Longitudinal studies may overestimate the intelligence of older people.

3.      Results are complicated by the fact that many IQ tests include a physical performance portion.

a)      These are timed.

b)      Reaction time slows with age.

c)      Results may be due to physical changes not cognitive changes.

4.      Many researchers believe there are two kinds of intelligence.

a)      FLUID INTELLIGENCE is the ability to deal with new problems and situations.

(1)   Fluid intelligence is inductive reasoning, spatial orientation, perceptual speed, and verbal memory.

(2)   Fluid intelligence does decline with age.

b)      CRYSTALLIZED INTELLIGENCE is the store of information, skills, and strategies that people have acquired through education and prior experiences, and through their previous use of fluid intelligence.

(1)   Crystallized intelligence includes numerical and verbal abilities, such as solving a crossword puzzle or a mathematical problem.

(2)   Crystallized intelligence holds steady or increases with age.

5.      Even though scores on IQ tests decline with age, middle-aged people show no decline in general cognitive competence.

a)      Traditional tests may not tap into practical intelligence.

b)      Highly successful middle-aged people may not be representative of all middle-aged people.

c)      Professional success may not rely exclusively on cognitive ability.

d)      Older, successful people may have developed expertise in their particular occupational area or SELECTIVE OPTIMIZATION, the process by which people concentrate on particular skill areas to compensate for losses in other areas.

B.     The Development of Expertise:  Separating Experts from Novices

1.      EXPERTISE, the acquisition of skill or knowledge in a particular area, develops as people devote attention and practice.

2.      While beginners use formal procedures and rules, experts rely on experience and intuition, and often bend the rules.

3.      Because experts have so much experience, their behavior is often automatic, performed without much thought.

4.      Experts develop better strategies than nonexperts.

C.     Memory:  You Must Remember This

1.      According to research on memory changes in adulthood, most people show only minimal losses, and many exhibit no memory loss in middle adulthood.

2.      Memory is viewed in terms of three sequential components.

a)      Sensory memory is an initial, momentary storage of information that lasts only an instant.

(1)   No decline in middle age.

b)      Short-term memory holds information for 15 to 25 seconds.

(1)   No decline in middle age.

c)      Long-term memory holds information that is rehearsed for a relatively permanent time.

(1)   Some decline in middle age.

(a)    storage is less efficient

(b)   a reduction in efficiency of memory retrieval

3.      We recall information through use of SCHEMAS, organized bodies of information stored in memory.

a)      Schemas allow people to organize, categorize, and interpret new information.

b)      Schemas allow people to organize their life into coherent wholes and interpret social events.

c)      Material that is consistent with existing schemas is more likely to be recalled than material that is inconsistent.

4.      MNEMONICS are formal strategies for organizing material in ways that make it more likely to be remembered.

a)      Method of loci is mentally associating material to be recalled with a particular location in a well-known building.

b)      Encoding specificity phenomenon is the principle that people are most likely to recall information in environments that are similar to those in which the information was initially learned.

c)      The keyword technique is when the learner forms a mental picture of something and connects it to something to be remembered.

d)      Rehearsal is the idea that practice makes perfect.





Key Terms and Concepts






Female climacteric


Male climacteric

Type A behavior pattern

Type B behavior pattern

Fluid intelligence

Crystallized intelligence

Selective optimization