Articles, Career Development

Developmental Psychology: Examining the Changes of Middle and Late Adulthood

Examining the Changes of Middle and Late Adulthood

by Denise N. Fyffe

According to Sdorow (2003), the average lifespan in 1850 was 40 years. However, due to improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and health care, the lifespan has almost doubled. The lifespan more than a century ago is today simply the beginning of middle adulthood.

Also, as more people live into their seventies and beyond, studies and interest have increased in studying late adulthood. In 1900 only one person in thirty live over the age of 65 years, however in 1970 one in nine persons was over 65 years and by 2020 one in five will be over this age (Sdorow, 1993). Therefore, it is essential that we understand the physical and biological changes that occur during the middle and late developmental stages of life.

Between the ages of 35 to 60, we find vast changes in many areas of our lives. One of the major aspects of middle adulthood is the physical and biological change that occurs in the body.

The Physical Changes of Adulthood

Physical changes take place starting around the age of 30 years. At this stage, there is a slow steady decline in strength. It is believed that over the next 30 years there will be a further loss of an average of ten percent.

Two of the most noticeable changes are loss of vision and hearing. Over time the muscles of the eye lose their elasticity, forcing the tissue in the lens to become cross-linked, compressing, and becoming less flexible, so after age thirty-one becomes more farsighted.

By age forty the lens is yellowing, the pupils shrink and the vitreous humor in the eye is getting thick areas. Therefore, less light enters the eye, it is often scattered, and glare becomes a problem. Night vision and color discrimination diminish. In middle age, some people may experience hearing loss resulting from a reduction in hair cells, which are found near the oval window. The oval window is responsible for capturing and transferring sounds to the inner ear. The loss gets worse, faster for men than women, because men lose the high-pitched sound perception first.

Another of the physical changes that occur is in height. Most individuals get a little shorter through the years resulting from the gravitational pull on less rigid bones caused by lower bone density. Lower bone density occurs because there is a diminished ratio of calcium in the bone and often this may lead to osteoporosis. One may experience grey or thinning hair, brittle nails, yellowing of the teeth, and wrinkling of the skin as the ratio of fat to lean in the body increases.

The Biological Changes of Adulthood

One of the biological changes that affect women in middle age is menopause and the same is true for men where andropause affects them.

Menopause is the process involving the ending of the menstrual cycle or the shutdown of reproductive capability. Accompanying the termination is hot flashes, headaches, dizziness, joint pain, loss of bone mass, and slowly rising blood cholesterol levels.

For men experiencing andropause, symptoms may include decreasing hormonal levels; an increased rate of impotence even though sex drive and sexual behavior may not diminish.

Other changes that occur in middle age are cardiovascular disease, cancer, slowing and stopping of estrogen production in women, middle-age spread, and wrinkles on the face, especially around the eyes and mouth. Lung function begins to decline due to the stiffening of connective tissue in the lungs; chest muscles, and ribs, vital capacity may decrease, as one gets older. The heart muscle begins to lose elasticity resulting in rigidity and decreased heart rate.

According to Bernstein and Nash (1999), people experience late adulthood from their mid-fifties. He believes that most people are well into late adulthood before their bodily functions start showing noticeable impairment. However, inside the body, bone mass is dwindling, the risk of heart disease is increasing, and fertility is declining.

Some women, who had not experienced menopause during middle adulthood, may begin to experience menopause in their late forties or early fifties. Estrogen and progesterone levels drop, and the menstrual cycle eventually ceases.

Some people may have a postural stoop, which is a characteristic slump, with the head projected forward and lower limbs and hips flexed. Men shrink about two centimeters in height, and women about five centimeters, as their posture changes and cartilage disks between the spinal vertebrae become thinner.

Hardening of the arteries and a build-up of fat deposits on the artery walls may lead to heart disease. The digestive system slows down and becomes less efficient. In addition, the brain shrinks, and the flow of blood to the brain diminishes.

Gradual loss of neural tissue and a slowing down of the Central Nervous System (CNS) occurs at the stage of late adulthood. The body’s immune system weakens, leaving one more vulnerable to illnesses and diseases. Physical appearance also changes in late adulthood, people experience wrinkles, and grey hair; thinning and loss of hair; and loss of teeth due to reduced calcium in the body.





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