Aging and Mental Acuity

The idea of aging has connotations of becoming feeble and frail both mentally and physically. People who are now taking care of their aging parents report that their once brilliant parents are losing touch with their memories and with reality. In the last couple years of her life, my grandmother no longer recognized me. She knew my brother and my younger sister, but I was a complete stranger as far as she was concerned.

Still, that sort of confusion and loss mental acuity is not universal. For every example of a senior citizen who has suffered such degradation, there is an example of one who runs marathons, completes a degree, or produces fantastic works of art.

Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner (2007) report that the effects of aging do not begin to appear until the fourth or fifth decade and may not become apparent for two or three decades beyond that. This runs contrary to the popular wisdom that people start losing mental capacity when they reach middle age. There is a great deal of evidence for physical decline, particularly in hearing and sight, but studies of mental decline are often contradictory and appear to be biased by such factors as the people included, the type of study, and the means of testing for intelligence (Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner, 2007).

This lack of consistent evidence for decline in aging will be important to me an educator. I need to check stereotypes about the intelligence of older students. I also need to remember that the elderly often develop very creative coping mechanisms that enable them to still keep up with their younger counterparts (Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner, 2007). Students, regardless of their age, come with a variety of prior knowledge, experiences, strengths, and hindrances. They need to be dealt with as the individuals they are.

A second interesting point is a confirmation of something I have long suspected. The sociocultural perspective proposes the idea that adult development depends in part on the times in which we live (Merriam, Cafferella, and Baumgartner, 2007). Pinquart and Silbereisen (2004) provide a specific example of how the reunification of Germany affected people on both sides of the wall. The development of people in or following a crisis depends on a large number of variables.

As an educator, I need to keep the nature of the times in mind. I have already been well aware that my elementary students behave and learn in a way consistent with the era. They were very interested in my descriptions of what school was like “back then” because the times were different, and different things were important. With a world in increasing turmoil, considering the effect of the society outside the classroom will be important.

As useful as each of the perspectives are, alone they cannot cover the entire spectrum of adult intelligence and development. Humans are complex creatures. Biological, psychological, and sociocultural elements combine with other characteristics in dizzying combinations. Being aware of the current research on the different perspectives of adult development will help me decipher where my students are coming from, which in turn will make me a better educator.


Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pinquart, M., & Silbereisen, R. K. (2004). Human development in times of social change: Theoretical considerations and research needs. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28(4), 289–298. doi:10


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