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The Aging Process...

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      The Aging Process
Aging Process

Aging is a continuous, complex, and dynamic process that begins with birth and ends with death. And unless we die in our early years, each of us will grow old and experience the effects of the aging process.

  Dynamics of Population Aging 

  Biological / Physiological Changes 

  Psychological Changes

  Social Factors

Today's aging population is putting a new 'spin' on society's concept of growing old. These almost-elderly are helping to tilt society's traditional views of aging with a more transgenerational perspective.

Growing old is now becoming OK!









 Dynamics of Population Aging 

THE OVERALL POPULATION BEGINS TO AGE as society moves from a condition of high rates of birth and death, to one of low rates of birth and death.

Demographers use the term "demographic transition" to refer to this transition process. And it's happening NOW throughout the world!

Population aging is normally determined by (1) birth (fertility) rates and (2) death (mortality) rates. High birth rates result in lower proportions of older people, low birth rates result in higher proportions of older people.

In the United States the youngest baby boomers are about forty five. The oldest are almost sixty-five years old and about to retire. Starting in 2011, the boomer generation began reaching age sixty five, and began to explode the population of over-65 people:

  • By 2030, America's elderly population is expected to reach 72 million, more than double the number in 2000.

  • By 2030, 55 countries are expected to see their 65 and older populations grow to at least 20 percent of their present total.

  • By 2050, Europe will continue to be the world's oldest region with its elder population increasing more than five fold, from 40 million to 219 million.

Such immanent changes in life expectation is a unique phenomen, never before occuring throughout human history. Clearly, enormous social and economic changes in the world's societies lie ahead—changes our anticedents could not even imagine.

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 Biological / Physiological Changes

Biological Changes photo


While most of us recognize advanced age in people when we see it, appearances alone do not determine how old we really are. Something more is needed.

Unfortunately, no relable measurement exists that allows us to to determine the biological age of humans and most other animals.The most promising, however, are in the realm of genetic and cellular functioning. Two biological phenomena appear related to the aging process:

  • Accumulation of waste products in the cells
  • Loss of elasticity of the connective body tissue

These changes, sometimes called nongenetic, occur at the cellular level. They have a direct bearing upon many declines we experience in our physical and sensory capabilities.

These changes effect the level of functioning of the cells and correlate with increased chronological age, but a direct cause-and-effect relationship has not been determined.


Accumulation of  Waste Products

AS CHRONOLOGICAL AGE INCREASES, cells function less efficiently. This inefficiency results in a build-up of waste products from the metabolic processes.

Most frequently, this is an accumulation of lipofuscin, an insoluable fatty substance which, when it exists in large quantities, is known to affect cellular functioning.

It is this build-up wich causes the familiar age spots, but it is also know to occur in the outer cortex of the brain, in nerve cells, in the heart muscle, and in many other tissues which monitor vital body functions.The overall affect is highly debatable, and the phenomenon is undergoing scientific study.  

Loss of Elasticity in Connective Tissue

THE CULPRIT IS COLLAGEN, a substance which constitutes more than one-fourth of the body's protein. As age increases, the connective tissue becomes less elastic.

The most obvious evidence of changes in collagen is wrinkles. However, since collagen fibers also surround the cells and blood vessels of the body, stiffening of these fibers could also affect the efficient functioning of many body systems.


MANY BODILY CHANGES take place over the entire lifespan— some beginning with birth. They are  part of a relentless, post-maturational phenomenon called senescence (biological aging).

Senescence results in a decrease in the physical capacity of an individual, accompanied by an increase in a person's vulnerability. As a result, any product or environment may become less friendly and less supportive for some people while adequately providing support for others.

Most of the changes that characterize senescence occur slowly. As thay occur, individuals adapt to them. For example, people with arthritis may select utensils with larger and softer handles to ease the pain and enhance their grip.

Designers and architects have a profound influence on products and environments. A transgenerational mindset helps them ensure that their designs accommodate people of all ages and abilities.


THE ABILITY OF HUMAN BEINGS to adapt to change is one of the most  positive spects of the aging process. It transcends all areas of human functioning, from living independently, despite overwhelming physical problems, to being able to compete with younger employees in the work force.

Changes and adaptation foster diversity, and our older population is no exception. While generalizations about older people are dangerous, the following observations reveal how much like us, they really are:

  • Older people are extremely sensitive to the fact that their personal resoources are diminishing.
  • They resent condescension in all of its forms and do not want to be patronized.
  • They want to remain independent as long as possible.
  • Most of all, they want to retain their dignity and self respect.

Accommmodating "transgenerational" products and environments provide a built-in range of adaptation that allow users—of any age or ability—to adjust them  to their individual needs and preference.

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  Psychological Changes

Brain Image


During our lifetime, many individual changes we undergo are psychological. Three particularly relevant areas of psychological change are:


Reaction Time

REACTION TIME INCREASES WITH AGE. Reasons for this are difficult to isolate. The increases could be caused by a slowing of perception, transmission to the brain, decoding and recoding in the brain, transmission to the appropriate responding mechanism, an/or the mecanism of the response itself.

When time is a factor, age differences appear. This change might affect products in which rapid responses are required in order to accomplish a task (e.g., using an electric food processor). Most older persons need a longer period of time to react.

Reaction time is also correlated with the complexity of the task (e.g., operating a pushbutton door lock). If both age and complexity increase, then behavior becomes less efficient.

Since so many of today's routine activities are both complex and require rapid resposes, these factors may make the tasks harder for older people. If physical and/or health problems are not present, adaptation and practice offset age-related decrements.

Experience and usage can negate some reaction time loss. For example, on an assembly line, most older workers are able to keep production quotas because they are constantly utilizing skills, experiences, and behaviors which have been developed over the years.



INTELLIGENCE ENDURES. It does not appear to change with age until quite late in the life span. Decrements that do appear seem to be more a factor of motivation, vocabulary, contemporary skills, and speed than they are a factor of age-related loss.

For example, old people may not be as highly motivated as younger people when taking tests. Older groups are usually at a disadvantage with younger groups when level of formal education and recency of contact with a testing environment are considered.

In general, speed decreases as age increases, and since most intelligence test are timed, this could affect overall scores. The vocabulary of older people is frequently limited and less contemporary than that of younger persons.

This is not due to lack of intelligence, but rather to two educational differences—fewer years of formal education and fewer recent classroom experiences, which would expose tthe person to a situation that would build a more cntemporary vocabulary.

Designers need to take this vocabularly issue into account when designing complex tasks such as setting the timing sequence on appliances.



AGE HAS LITTLE AFFECT ON LEARNING. It may take longer for an older person to learn something, but this illustrates, once again, that speed rather than ability differentiates older from younger learners.

Designers should note that for older people, retention is greatest for things which are both seen and heard (redundant cuing). Retention is next greatest for things which are heard, and lowest for things which are seen.

Designers may help older people by breaking complex tasks into simple, sequential sub-tasks, thus making learning easier.



Memory changes that accompany the aging process have a definite pattern. As people age, they tend to have more and more difficulty with short-term recall whereas long-term recall remains much more inact.

Reasons for this are unclear. It may be due to accumulated loss of neurons in the brain, but this is currently subject to debate.

Some researchers believe that social factors are responsible for memory loss, since the past, for many persons, may have been much more pleasant than the present. However, there is no general agreement in this matter either.

The programming of task sequences, such as found in pre-dialing features on many telephones, begins to address the problem of short-term recall.



PROBLEM-SOLVING TECHNIQUES DIFFER WITH AGE. As age increases, we tend to solve problems differently from younger persons, Older people are much more reluctant to use trial-and-error beaviors than are younger people.

Prior to attempting a solution, most older people prefer to take time to "think through" the situation. Younger people are prone to use "trial and error" more quickly and more frequently. And while our reaction time increases with age and correlates with the comp[exity of a task, this increase is only measured in miliseconds..

This behvior could affect the manner in which older Americans use mechanical devices. Clear, easy-to-follow directions go a long way to encourage trial and error behavior and avoid intimidating older people.





Our personality remains fairly constant throughout our lifespan. Not only do we retain our individual differences, these differences become even more pronounced as we get older.

As we age, we generally become more and more like the person we were in our youth; a placid youngster becomes a more placid older person, a talkative teenager becomes a talkative older person, and a stubborn youngster carries the trait of stubbernness into old age. Still, wide variations have been observed, and it's difficult to make accurate predictions in this area.

Moreover, most people assume that when you get old it is "natural" to become forgetful and to lose contact with reality. This simply is not  true. While we may experience some difficulty with short-term memory as we get older, our long-term memory generally remains sound.

Except for gradual changes in our physical appearance and experiencing more physical problems, being "old" feels no different from how we feel now or when we were young.

In reality, an old person is a young person who has just lived longer.





It's an insidious myth, still perpetuated by society and reinforced by the media, that older people "naturally" grow more confused, childlike, forgetful, and lose contact  with reality. They become "senile".

In reality, senility is an outdated term referring to abnormal deterioration in the mental functions of some older people, linking the process of growing old to symptoms of forgetfulness, confusion, and changes in behavior and personality, which is neither a normal sign of aging nor even a disease.

The word "senility" implies an assumption about the elderly that, because they are old, they are also mentally deficient. Such thinking discriminates against the elderly by causing and promoting social isolation, dependency and loss of independence. In fact only a small percentage (4-5%) of older people experience physical and/or psychological decrements that warrant institutionalization, while 94% of the older population remain independent. Unfortunately, the myth of senility obscures the facts.


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  Social Factors

Social Group Photo


These individuals, in turn, are influenced by the society in which they live. Thus, both Individuals and groups define and re-define our sense of self as we develop and as society changes. And society's view of

"growing old" or being "old" is no exception to this process. Our contemporary society is, in part, a product of the past. Past and present factors shape the society of tomorrow. Examining the social factors of today is similar to viewing a single frame of a motion picture.

Today's frame is a product of yesterday, but which now includes the largest number and percentage of older persons than ever before—more people age 65 and over are living today than have ever lived previously in all of recorded history.

These large numbers of older persons are a new phenomenon. Societies, world wide, are only beginning to learn how to accomodate age-related changes. To confound matters, contemporary society continues to feel the escalating effects of an aging baby-boom generation.

As a result of today's youth orientation and the increassed number of older persons, three issues present themselves. Gerontologists have named them agesim, gerontophobia, and retirement.



AGEISM REFERS TO DISCRIMINATION BASED ON AGE. This attitude arises because of age-related changes in appearance,  in beliefs, and in other behaviors—those characteristics which supposedly make older persons "different."

Agesim is seen in many contexts. It is insidious. It is also present in financial matters and employment. It is  demonstrated by our immediate asumption that slow drivers must be old. What's more, many older Americans, regardless of economic circumstances, find it extremely difficult to obtain loans, even for modest amoounts.

Finally, the need for legal protection as provided by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (in effect for those age 40 and above) reflects the extent to which ageism permeates society.



GERONTOPHOBIA IS THE FEAR OF OLD AGE, especially of growing old. This fear is a by-product of the high value contemporary society places on youth and productivity. It touches all facets of life, from physical appearance to the fear of death.

Since the dawn of human history people have sought the secret of immortality. We still search for that secret potion that will maintain our youth and keep us from aging. In his book, Age Wave, Ken Dychtwald identifies seven markers that can induce our phobia:

  • If young is good, then old is bad
  • If the young have it all, the old are losing it
  • If the young are creative, the old are dull
  • If the young are beautiful, then the old are unattractive
  • If the young are stimulating, then the old are boring
  • If the young are full of passion, then the old are beyond caring
  • If the children are tomorrow, the old represent yesterday

Each of us is constantly bombarded with incentives to to remain young and prolong our lives through medical breakthroughs. Unfortunately, this attitude has been internalized by many people — both old and young.

But, in the end, each of us will experience the aging process and, unless we die in our early years, we will continually grow older and struggle with the inevitable reality that our end is gradually approaching.


RETIREMENT IS AN AMBIVALENT CONCEPT. It represents a reward for participation in the labor force. It also represents a mechanism to ensure turnover of the labor force, with younger workers moving into slots vacated by retirees.

On the one hand, each succeeding year the concept of retirement receives greater public support and approval as well as a transgenerational transfer of monies via the social secrity system.

On the other nand, retirement results in decreased income. It also leaves an older person with what some gerontologists describe as a "roleless role"—i.e., no alternative to the role, status, and significance of "employee" has yet evolved.

In a work-oriented society, this non-productive  status, along with society's youthemphasis, means that older people are at odds with contemporary norms in two resects: productivity and appearance! These factors contribute to the phenomena of agism and gerontophobia.

Many of the effects are obvious; others are quite subtle. All of us are guilty of ageism to some degree. Most of us suffer from gerontophobia. At the same time, we all experience the affects of the aging process, and we react to them.

Designers who are aware of and sensitive to these social phenomena are in a better position to advocate the development of accommodating products and environments.


We can help you design transgenerational products and environments that are useable by the young, the old, the able and disabled—without penalty to any group.


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