Third Age – The Golden Years of Adulthood

Third Age – The Golden Years of Adulthood
By Stephen F. Barnes, Ph.D.
San Diego State University
The Third Age is now considered by many to be the “golden years” of adulthood. It is generally
defined as the span of time between retirement and the beginning of age-imposed physical,
emotional, and cognitive limitations, and today would roughly fall between the ages of 65 and
80+. This is a period of adulthood when typically there are fewer responsibilities (e.g., career and
family-rearing) than before and, when coupled with adequate financial
resources and good physical and psychological health, offers rich
possibilities for self-fulfillment, purposeful engagement, and completion.
At the individual level, the Third Age can last a few years or as much as
two decades or more. Since aging has now become highly contextualized
in America there is no set pattern, sequence of events, or progression of
steps for navigating this life space. Moreover, the Third Age is relatively
new to human history and as a result there is little social understanding about it or general
guidance yet from cultural mythmakers---filmmakers, novelists, dramatists, artists. It has been
described as a period of developmental ambiguity, time of life that is both old age and not old
age (Rubinstein, 2002). For some adults, indeed an increasing number, there can be many positive outcomes related to
aging, many of which are explicit during the Third Age. These include relative good health and
social engagement (Smith, 2000), functional reserve capacity (Baltes, 1998), knowledge and
expertise (Singer, Verhaeghen, Ghisletta, Lindenberger, & Baltes, 2003), and adaptive flexibility
in daily living (Riediger, Freund, & Baltes, 2005). At the same time, declines in effortful and
resource-intensive cognitive processing are clearly detectable for nearly all adults, despite being
launched much earlier in the lifespan. Aging-related deficits, which present moderate to large
negative correlations with aging, begin appearing in early-adulthood for episodic memory,
spatial visualization, processing speed, and abstract reasoning (Salthouse, 2009; Tucker-Drob,
2011). But the young old also show strong, continued performance in the areas of sustained
attention, short-term memory, and crystallized intelligence. In terms of long-term memory,
semantic, procedural, implicit, autobiographical, and prospective memory appear largely
unaffected by age during this span of years. However, where deficits clearly impact different
types of functional performance—selective attention, attention switching, working memory,
episodic memory—there is a preponderance of evidence suggesting mediation through practice,
extended training, and cardiovascular exercise.
In the Third Age, chronic diseases are among the most common and costly
health problems facing older adults today. Because they are linked to lifestyle
choices they can be can prevented, lessoned, or managed. These include weight
gain, muscle mass loss, late onset diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and
hypertension, various cancers, emphysema and lung cancer associated with
tobacco use, skin cancer, dental problems, sensory impairments, and nutritionrelated disorders. Well into old age, biological self-repair mechanisms,
neurogenesis, and neuroplasticity remain functional although at clearly reduced levels of
In the psychological realm, aging favors identity, self-esteem, subjective well-being, and
personality. It also enhances emotional experiences and regulation. These are important adult
assets and in their aggregate suggest that a sense of self worth, life satisfaction and happiness,
and emotional well-being may be as good or better in the Third Age than in any previous period
of adulthood (Carstensen, Fung, & Charles, 2003; George, 2009; Robins & Trzesniewski, 2005).
Below is a summary of what we currently know about socioemotional aging.
Identity and Self-Esteem. Although highly personalized and subject
to cultural influences, when defined as self-evaluation personal
identity generally becomes more favorable across the lifespan but
with a moving baseline. Self-esteem, a person’s overall evaluation of
their self-worth is a relatively stable, trait-like construct that is
conscientiousness (Robins, Tracy, Trzesniewski, Potter, & Gosling,
2001; Trzesniewski, Donnellan & Robins, 2003). The trajectory of self-esteem across the
lifespan increases during young and middle adulthood, reaching a peak at about age 60,
and then slowly declines in old age. The research also suggests that changes in
socioeconomic status partially account for the decline in self-esteem that occurs in old
age (Orth, Trzesniewski & Robins, 2010). More educated individuals have higher selfesteem than less educated individuals, but with similar trajectories.
Subjective Well-Being. On average, older adults are more
satisfied with their lives than either middle or young adults,
with middle-aged adults least satisfied (Mroczek & Spiro,
2005). At the individual level dispositional tendencies,
race/ethnicity, SES, social support, health status, and life
events and one’s self-management of such events can all
influence whether well-being improves or declines with age
(Blanchflower & Oswald, 2008; George, 2009; Pinquart and Sorensen, 2000).
Emotional Experiences and Regulation. Emotional experience, expression, and
physiological responsivity change little with age, and older adults self-report the same
levels of emotional intensity as younger adults but with more complexity and poignancy
(i.e., mixed emotions) (Carstensen, Mikels, and Mather, 2006). Emotional declines have
also been reported for older adults in the magnitude of
physiological reactions but with fewer negative emotional
experiences overall, particularly with reductions in anger. In
contrast, emotional stability and control improves with age
relative to younger adults. Older adults display less negativity,
a decline in emotional intensity, and a reduction in trait
neuroticism (Williams, et al., 2006).
Carstensen et al. (2010) recently reported the results of a 13-year longitudinal study of
184 adults ranging in age from 18-94 years (mean age = 55 yrs.). Residing in the San
Francisco Bay area, the participants were 69 percent white, 31 percent Black, 54 percent
female, 59 percent white-collar workers, and 41 percent blue-collar workers. Mean
education level for the sample was 15 years of formal education. Four main findings
emerged from the study. First, improvements were observed in overall emotional wellbeing with age, as well as a significant quadratic age trend consistent with earlier crosssectional findings in the literature. These data also suggested that developmental gains in
emotional well-being may level off in the 7th decade of life for most adults. Second, with
advancing age emotional experiences became more stable. Third, emotional experiences
appeared to become more mixed (i.e., poignant) as people aged. All of these findings
were largely consistent across types of analysis (cross-sectional vs. growth curve
modeling) and remained after accounting for other variables related to emotional
experience, such as, personality, verbal fluency, physical health, and demographic
characteristics. Fourth, emotional experience was associated with mortality. After
controlling for age, sex, and ethnicity, individuals who experienced relatively more
positive than negative emotions in everyday life had a statistically lower mortality rate.
Positivity Effect. Older adults also show significant changes in the ratio of positive-tonegative emotion, with a reduction in the experience, memory, and recognition of
negative emotion, but increases for positive emotion in similar situations and contexts.
This emotional shift has been termed the positivity effect and has been observed in
multiple domains, including autobiographical memory, longterm memory, working memory, and attention. It is not known
what causes the shift but it appears that older people attend to
and remember the past more positively than younger people
(Carstensen, Mikels, & Mather, 2006; Charles, Mather, &
Carstensen, 2003). What the accumulating evidence further
suggests is that the emotional lives of older adults are more
pleasant and manageable than their younger counterparts
(Carstensen, Fung, & Charles, 2003).
The Third Age must be characterized as a paradox, a point in chronological time when adults
experience life and self more positively while some basic cognitive functions continue to
undergo slow deterioration. It is a period of divergent trajectories: declines in effortful and
resource-intensive cognitive processing, stabilization of autonomic cognitive processes (e.g.,
attention and some types of memory function), word knowledge, expert knowledge, and life
management, and improvement in the areas of identity, self-esteem, emotional stability and
regulation, emotional experience, and subjective well-being.
Copyright 2011
Stephen F. Barnes, Ph.D.
San Diego State University Interwork Institute
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