Geropsychology addresses a broad range of domains such as cognitive abilities, personality, social-emotional functioning, as well as the mental health of older adults. Seen against other key disciplines, geropsychology concentrates more on individual behavior than on societal and biological processes as compared to the sociology of aging and biogerontology. Nevertheless, an increasing orientation toward combining biomarkers with traditional measures of geropsychology such as questionnaires has emerged with the goal to better understand the connection between biological and behavioral variables as people age (Kotter-Grühn et al. 2016).
Key Research Findings
Cognitive aging has likely received the most research attention so far in geropsychology. Robust findings mostly based on longitudinal studies underscore that cognitive abilities such as information processing speed, inductive reasoning, working memory, and verbal skills remain on average rather stable until the age of 65–70 years and then decline (Schaie 2013). However, large interindividual differences in cognitive aging exist depending on socio-structural, health, and lifestyle factors.
Further, trait personality development as reflected in the Big Five (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness), which has long been assumed as stable across the adult lifespan after the age of 30 years (McCrae and Costa 1994), should be reinterpreted as rather plastic according to more recent longitudinal research. Indeed, rank-order stability of the Big Five personality traits is decreasing as people age, particularly beyond the age of 80 years (Specht et al. 2011).
The so-called “well-being paradox” of aging describes the phenomenon that positive and negative affect, as well as satisfaction with life, remain on average rather stable until advanced old age despite substantial age-related losses. It has been shown that older adults have a broad range of developmental regulatory strategies at their disposal that allow the maintenance of well-being. For example, older adults adjust their life goals by disengaging from goals that are no longer attainable (Heckhausen et al. 2010).
Driven by socio-emotional selectivity theory, geropsychological research has also found that older adults are active and successful shapers of their social relations. The assumption that a shortened future time perspective is associated with an increased investment into less but more intimate social relations has found much empirical support (English and Carstensen 2017).
Finally, the subjective aging experience has seen intensive research in geropsychology. For example, Westerhof et al.’s (2014) meta-analysis has demonstrated that more positive attitudes toward one’s own aging are longitudinally linked with better health outcomes and lowered mortality rates.
Future Directions for Research
Longitudinal research as well as experimental study designs can be seen as the gold standard for geropsychological research. However, ecological momentary assessments (EMA), hence the intensive measurement of behavior across shorter time periods such as a week and frequently with several measurement points per day, have seen a tremendous increase during recent decades (Diehl et al. 2015). Thus, combining EMA with long-term study designs running across years and lab-based experimental studies that allow isolating certain mechanisms of interest (e.g., the time flow of emotional down-regulation after a stress occurrence) may become the new gold standard of geropsychology’s future.
Another emerging trend in geropsychology is to include a contextual perspective (Wahl and Gerstorf 2018). The basic idea is that analyzing the behavior of individuals without the empirical consideration of the respective context is oversimplifying and of low ecological validity (Diehl et al. 2017).
- American Psychological Association (2019) Psychology and aging: addressing mental health needs of older adults. https://www.apa.org/pi/aging/resources/guides/aging.pdf. Accessed 18 Feb 2019
- Diehl M, Hooker K, Sliwinski MJ (2015) Handbook of intraindividual variability across the life span. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Schaie KW (2013) Developmental influences on adult intelligence: the Seattle Longitudinal Study, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Schaie KW (2016) Theoretical perspectives for the psychology of aging in a lifespan context. In: Schaie KW, Willis SL (eds) Handbook of the psychology of aging, 8th edn. Academic, San Diego, pp 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-411469-2.00001-7CrossRefGoogle Scholar