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Winter/Spring 2006 Vol. 6 No. 1

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©Strauss/Curtis/Corbis Helping Older Americans Get
Better With Time

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"

As the Beatles sang their 1967 hit, the song likely turned a young generation's thoughts toward the future and getting "old." If the song were written today, the old-age marker might be 74 or 84, but the questions would reflect a similar discomfort about aging: Will older people remain healthy and mentally sharp members of society?

The "graying" of America is well under way. By 2030 roughly 70 million people in the United States will be 65 or older -- more than double the number in 2000. A new report from the National Research Council offers the National Institute on Aging a research agenda to achieve an entirely new understanding about the health and well-being of this population.

The proposed agenda is centered on four areas with far-reaching roots in psychology -- motivation and behavioral change, socioemotional influences on decision-making, the relationship between social engagement and cognition, and the effects of stereotypes.

Understanding individual and social behavior over a lifetime is key to understanding differences in how older people fare, the report says. Moreover, such knowledge should be used when formulating public policies to support healthy lifestyles among this group, ultimately benefiting group members and society as a whole.

Motivation is a critical part of getting people to develop and maintain healthy living patterns, said the committee that wrote the report. More research is needed on what sparks and sustains behavior changes in older people.

For many seniors, personal rules of thumb -- accompanied by gut feelings or intuition -- may play larger roles in decision-making than careful deliberation does, the report adds. But more study is needed on the effects of such emotional influences. Likewise, researchers should systematically explore whether social relationships and interactions affect cognition among older people.

Stereotypes also should be investigated because they may limit the contributions that older people make to society, the report says. A research agenda on aging should incorporate studies of how gender, race, ethnicity, class, and culture shape the way that people think and act as they age.

The recommended research on aging requires interdisciplinary approaches, the report emphasizes. NIA should strengthen its research infrastructure to conduct studies in the proposed areas and widely disseminate their findings.   -- Vanee Vines

When I'm 64. Committee on Aging Frontiers in Social Psychology, Personality, and Adult Developmental Psychology, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2005, approx. 286 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10064-X, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $54.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Laura L. Carstensen, professor of psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. The study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences