Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Images of Aging: Outside and Inside Perspectives

Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Images of Aging: Outside and Inside Perspectives

Article excerpt


Chronological age is but one, and not the most accurate, indicator of human aging. Multiple outside (i.e., objective) and inside (i.e., subjective) perspectives on aging need to be considered to do justice to the multidimensionality of human development and aging. Outside perspectives are, for example, biological, social, and psychological ages. A chronological age of 75 years, for instance, may be linked with a different biological as well as cognitive age. Human development and aging is not only a biological process but is interactive in nature. As a result, it is characterized by impressive plasticity which entails the relativity of the meaning of chronological age. Outside perspectives are closely linked with inside perspectives on aging such as societal stereotypes, images about one's own old age and metastereotypes, that is, what we think others might think about old age. These inside perspectives, even though "invisible," are very powerful and exert effects on biological, social, and psychological ages alike and are affected by them. Future research needs to focus on furthering our understanding of the interactions taking place between biological, psychological, and sociocultural influences on the aging process and on the mechanisms linking personal, societal, and meta-images of old age.


"What is my age and how many ages do I have?" is the first guiding question of this chapter, and it refers to the outside perspectives on aging. The second part of the chapter is concerned with the question, "What do I think about (my) old age and how does it influence my own aging?" and this represents the inside perspectives on aging.

The first question is meant to highlight the equivocality of the notion "age," even though we think that the answer to the question, "What is your age?" is quite straightforward. When we talk about a person's age, we usually rely on the definition of chronological age and refer to the difference between the current date and the person's birth date. The straightforward metric and the simplicity of this definition is enticing, which may be one of the reasons why, all too often, chronological age, that is, the passage of time, is bestowed with a causal power and is used to explain observed age-related changes without being aware of the actual biological, psychological, and/or social influences underlying such changes. As is often the case, it is not the most obvious and most easily available explanation that is the right one or the only one. Research in the tradition of life span psychology (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2006; Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980) as well as life course sociology (Elder, 1975; Settersten & Mayer, 1997) has shown that the meaning of age must not be reduced to that of chronological age.

Life span psychology has demonstrated that chronological age per se has no explanatory power but that it is a cover variable for the age-related processes and influences to be uncovered and understood in terms of their causal effects (Baltes et al., 2006; Baltes et al., 1980; see also Neugarten, 1977). More specifically, human development and aging-two sides of one coin-are not determined by biology, that is, in this case the genome, such that development and aging are the emergent property of elapsing time. Rather, human development and aging are the result of the continuous interaction between biological influences, sociocultural influences, and the decisions and competencies as well as beliefs and attributions of the developing individual himself or herself. Thus, age (or aging) is multidimensional. The interactive nature of aging is at the heart of its plasticity and therefore historical relativity (Staudinger, Marsiske, & Baltes, 1995). Plasticity here is defined as the modifiability of age-related change. It is a constituent characteristic of human development and aging. It is maintained throughout life unless pathological processes interfere. …

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