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Understanding the role of psychosocial factors in late life requires a high-altitude view of human development to identify the basic biological and social forces that fundamentally shape the development of the person and the ways in which they respond to life challenges. These forces are typically viewed as constraints and can be briefly summarized in four propositions.

  1. Biological development follows a sequential pattern. Although there is considerable interindividual variability in biological development, the overall biological resources across the life span resemble an inverted U-function. During childhood and adolescence, cognitive and physical abilities increase and provide the basis for the development of complex motor and cognitive skills. Physical development plateaus during early adulthood and then later declines. In old age, declines in both physical and cognitive functioning are evident.

  2. Societies impose age-graded sociostructural constraints on development. Life span psychologists and life course sociologists emphasize that all societies can be characterized as having age-graded systems, which constrain and provide a scaffold for life course patterns. These patterns provide predictability and structure at both individual and societal levels. A prototypical case is childbearing in women, which is shaped by both social institutions and biological constraints.

  3. Life is finite. Whatever is to be achieved or experienced in life has to be done in a limited period of time, typically less than 80 years. At any given point in an individual's life, the anticipated amount of time left to live may shape behavior and affect in important ways.

  4. Genetic endowment is a limiting factor on the biological and behavioral functioning of the individual. Although the potential behavioral repertoire of humans is vast, the capacity to achieve extraordinary levels of functioning in a given domain is often constrained by the genetic makeup of the individual.

This view of development emphasizes that accumulated resilience or adaptive capacity of individuals will vary as function of the individual's location in the life course. For example, the biological and physical reserves of an individual will generally be greater for persons in young adulthood than for persons in old age. Conversely, behavioral resources and psychological reserves may be greater at older ages because of accumulated life experiences, acquisition of skills, and increased knowledge. In addition, a given stressor will likely activate different psychological and behavioral processes in varying intensities as a function of the individual's location in the life course. Finally, because of fundamental changes in age-related biological functioning, the type and intensity of biological pathways activated by stressful encounters as well as the manifestation of overt disease will vary substantially as a function of the individual's location in the life course.

The number of topics that could legitimately be included in a discussion of psychosocial aspects of aging is vast. Work, retirement, migration, sexuality, stress, widowhood, emotionality, mental health, social support, and friendship are just a few of the domains that might be discussed within a psychosocial framework, and many of these topics are covered in other chapters ...

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