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Section 5
Biological Aspects of Aging

Question 5 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Printable Page

Biological Perspectives on Aging
How do environmental hazards, developmental processes, and genetic tendencies contribute to the aging process?
Most scientists agree that aging is probably caused by a combination of environmental, developmental, and genetic factors, but they disagree on which factors may be most important. Two theories, the wear and tear theory and the somatic mutation theory, emphasize the role of the environment. The wear and tear theory, which is based on the idea that the body is like a machine that simply wears out, is now largely discounted. The somatic mutation theory holds that environmental insults cause genetic damage, which hastens aging.
Several other theories highlight the role of developmental processes and genetic programming. The immune function theory of aging emphasizes the gradual breakdown of the immune system as the central cause of aging. Another theory, the cross-linkage theory of aging, is based on the idea that the gradual accumulation of cross-linked collagen causes a number of bodily changes associated with aging, such as hardening of the arteries and stiffness of joints. A third theory emphasizes the role of free radicals, unstable molecules that are implicated in a number of diseases. Finally, according to genetic control theory, our life span is programmed into our genes.

What is the difference between normal aging and pathological aging?
Biological aging refers to the structural and functional changes that occur in an organism over time, beginning at maturity and lasting until death. This normal process of aging is rarely lethal on its own. Instead, aging-dependent diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease, increase a person's vulnerability to stress and the probability of death. This increased vulnerability is called senescence. While disability rates increase as people age, most people spend most of their lives free of disability.

How does aging change a person's physical appearance and mental functioning?
As we age, a number of changes occur in the skin. Some, such as wrinkles, sagging chins, and age spots, have no health consequences. The risk of skin cancer also increases with age, because of the cumulative effects of a lifetime of exposure to the sun. Age-related changes in the nervous system, which coordinates all other body systems, can affect walking, sleep patterns, learning, and memory. As people age, they spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep and awaken more often during the night. Because of changing sleep patterns, older people are more prone to chronic insomnia. They are also more likely to fall.

How does aging affect a person's sensory organs?
As people age, they lose sensitivity to perceptual experiences associated with vision, hearing, taste and smell, and touch. Older people need more light to see clearly and may have trouble seeing in the dark. They also may have presbyopia, which refers to an inability to focus on near objects. Two visual disorders that become increasingly common with advancing years are cataracts and glaucoma. Both can be prevented or cured with proper medical treatment. As people age, their ability to receive and interpret sound declines. The loss of hearing can lead an otherwise healthy individual to become socially isolated from family and friends. Taste and smell being closely related, as people lose their ability to smell distinct odors, their sense of taste also suffers. A loss of taste in turn affects eating habits. People who can't taste their food may eat less and become malnourished. Finally, the sense of touch, especially in the fingertips, diminishes with age as does the ability of the body to regulate heating and cooling. As a result, older people are more affected by heat waves or cold spells. Since most of these changes occur gradually, most older people adjust to them by making incremental changes in their lifestyles.

What effects does aging have on the bones, joints, and muscles?
Bone depletion is a natural part of aging that begins as young as age 30. One of the more serious consequences of bone loss is osteoporosis. Those at greatest risk of osteoporosis are small-boned postmenopausal women. New treatments for osteoporosis promise to increase bone density and improve the quality of life for older women.
In both women and men, the most common cause of disability in later life is arthritis, a disease of the joints. Mild arthritis causes pain and discomfort; severe forms, like rheumatoid arthritis, can be crippling. The development of artificial joints has restored freedom of movement to severely arthritic persons.
Finally, as people age, their muscles atrophy and their strength declines. Studies show that strength training and other forms of exercise can dramatically reduce the loss of muscle strength in the aged.

How does aging change a person's sexual capacity?
Menopause signals the end of a woman's fertility. The physical changes associated with menopause include hot flashes and the loss of natural vaginal lubrication. Hormone replacement therapy can relieve these menopausal symptoms, but is associated with a slightly increased risk of breast cancer.
There is no male equivalent to menopause, although male hormone levels do decline with age. One problem some older men experience is erectile dysfunction, or impotence. While some cases of erectile dysfunction have a physical cause, more often the cause is psychological.

What effects does aging have on the heart and blood vessels?
High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when a person's arteries become less pliable with age or are blocked by accumulations of plaque. If the coronary artery becomes blocked, a heart attack will ensue. A number of medical procedures can reduce the risk of heart attacks. Balloon angioplasty is a technique that is used to open blocked arteries. In coronary bypass surgery, blocked arteries are replaced with blood vessels taken from other parts of the body. Finally, artificial pacemakers can be inserted in the chest to steady an irregular heartbeat.

What effect does aging have on creativity, wisdom, and intelligence?
Creativity has no clear association with aging. Although some great scientists and artists have made their most significant contributions when they were in their 20s, others have made creative contributions when they were in their 60s, 70s, or even older. Wisdom is a difficult concept to measure. Since it involves a profound understanding of the world, it is likely to increase with age.
Psychologists describe two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence involves reasoning, memory, and information-processing skills. Crystallized intelligence refers to the information, skills, and strategies learned through experience. Although some older people experience a slight loss of fluid intelligence, aging appears to have no effect on crystallized intelligence.

- Quadagno, Jill, Aging & the Life Course: Student Edition, 4th Ed., OnlineLearningCenter. McGraw-Hill Higher Education 2008
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise Explanation
The Goal of this Home Study Course is to create a learning experience that enhances your clinical skills. We encourage you to discuss the Personal Reflection Journaling Activities, found at the end of each Section, with your colleagues. Thus, you are provided with an opportunity for a Group Discussion experience. Case Study examples might include: family background, socio-economic status, education, occupation, social/emotional issues, legal/financial issues, death/dying/health, home management, parenting, etc. as you deem appropriate. A Case Study is to be approximately 150 words in length. However, since the content of these “Personal Reflection” Journaling Exercises is intended for your future reference, they may contain confidential information and are to be applied as a “work in progress.” You will not be required to provide us with these Journaling Activities.

Personal Reflection Exercise #1
The preceding section contained information about the biological aspects of aging. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

What are the two types of intelligence described by psychologists?
To select and enter your answer go to Answer Booklet.

Answer Booklet for this course
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The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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