7 Insights About Aging from College of Natural Sciences Researchers
In honor of International Day of Older Persons, learn about insights from UT Austin researchers related to aging and older individuals.
In less than 15 years, the U.S. Census Bureau projects older adults (over 65) will outnumber children for the first time in history. Research on the relationships, health and well-being of the elderly has traditionally lagged behind research on children, adolescents and young adults. With its Center on Aging and Population Sciences (CAPS) and Texas Aging and Longevity Center (TALC) and its status in the Age-Friendly University (AFU) Global Network, The University of Texas at Austin is working to advance understanding about and support for older populations.
Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences, studies topics related to aging and older individuals. In honor of the International Day of Older Persons, we rounded up insights from Fingerman and some of her UT Austin colleagues that you or someone you know may appreciate.
1. Older Adults Are Happier When their Space Matches their Personality.
Fingerman and her fellow scientists at UT Austin studied photographs of the living rooms of 286 people over the age of 65. They found that older adults who live in a space that decoratively matches their own personality experience greater well-being. Older adults have different and unique preferences to how they create a living space, and there is no one best approach, other than matching decorations to the person.
2. Discrimination Experiences May Contribute to Cognitive Decline.
In Elizabeth Muñoz's recent study of the relationship between ethnic discrimination and cognitive function, the team found evidence that Hispanic individuals who are discriminated against experience increased rates of cognitive impairment. Researchers in this study evaluated the association between if an individual perceives that they are being discriminated against due to race and dementia and Alzheimer's symptoms down the road.
3. Older Adults Who Live Alone Reap Benefits from In-Person Interactions.
Many older adults missed out on social interaction during the pandemic. Fingerman and fellow researchers concluded in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Social Science, that adults living alone were most affected by social contact during the pandemic. They experienced more positive emotions when interacting with someone in person. By contrast, phone calls with friends and family could often provoke greater loneliness for those living alone, perhaps because they realized how much they missed their social contacts.
4. There Is No Road Map for the Longest Phase of Parenthood.
Speaking to The Atlantic this fall, Fingerman discussed how there are few guidelines for older Americans as they relate with their adult children and sometimes need their support in new ways. According to a news article about the phenomenon:
Parents may struggle to accept the aid they need…adult children should treat their parent like a peer, rather than a child, and should approach discussions collaboratively. But just as parents of young adults cannot control their children's choices, adult children need to accept that their parents also get to make decisions they don't agree with, [Fingerman] said.
In one study, she and her collaborators found that grown children who receive intensive parental support are more likely to be successful and happy in life—and this benefits the parent as well. Children who receive such parental support are more likely to provide higher levels of care for their aging parents in need.
5. Television Viewing Among Elders Can Reflect Loneliness and Lack of Exercise.
Older adults spend over a third of their waking hours watching television. Turning on the television as a leisure activity can be a shared activity with others or a substitute for social interaction. In a study titled "Television viewing, physical activity and loneliness in late life," Fingerman and her colleagues found that older adults who lived alone reported greater loneliness when viewing television, and older adults who lived with others spent a greater proportion of time sedentary when viewing television.
6. Widowed Older Adults Get Biggest Mood Boost from Conversation.
Marital status contributes to differences in social experiences in late life. Fingerman's doctoral student Crystal Ng assessed whether older adults' marital status alters how often they have conversations throughout the day, if divorced and widowed older adults have more conversations with friends and non-spousal family, and if conversation affects mood more depending on whether an older adult is married. According to the Journal of Gerontology study, married older adults have more conversations overall than divorced older adults, but divorced individuals have more conversations with friends than married adults. Conversations were found to be mood-enhancing for all older adults, but the benefits were especially prominent for widowed older adults.
7. Friendships Among Older People Carry Special Weight.
Researchers have known that having friends late in life is beneficial, and a study in 2020 highlighted the emotional effects, from mood to stress reduction, of interacting with friends regularly. Doctoral student Crystal Ng collaborated with UT Austin human development and family sciences researchers Lisa Neff, Marci Gleason and Fingerman to reveal that older adults' interactions with friends were more pleasant and less stressful than their encounters with romantic partners or family members throughout the day. Being with friends also was associated with more positive mood, and this link was particularly evident with friends who were not considered close.