Mental health in middle adulthood

As individuals enter middle adulthood, they begin the process of senescence, or “growing down” (Levinson; as cited in Broderick and Blewitt, 2009). Health slowly deteriorates over the years in terms of mental acuity and physical performance. Of particular interest to psychologists is how the brain continues to function in middle adulthood; this post will examine various measures of mental health in adults aged 30-60.

Intelligence measures
“Fluid intelligence” refers to the mechanical workings of the brain and its overall cognitive efficiency; it is thought to decline slowly at age 30 and more rapidly after age 40 (Broderick and Blewitt, 2009). Those with diminished fluid intelligence will take longer to process and respond to information (Kail & Salthouse; as cited in Broderick and Blewitt) and may become more easily distracted (Zacks & Hasher; as cited in Broderick and Blewitt). As fluid intelligence declines, so too does working memory. Broderick and Blewitt provide several examples of the forms this may take; remembering 5 rather than 6 digits of a phone number, or having trouble putting a name to someone’s face (p. 427).

“Crystallized intelligence” refers to intellect in the form of declarative and procedural knowledge; the purpose of education is to increase the crystallized intelligence of students. Unlike fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence generally does not decline during middle adulthood–much to the contrary, it can actually increase if the individual continues to pursue more education (Broderick and Blewitt, 2009). So as an individual’s working memory declines, he or she has more knowledge to draw upon to solve problems, thus preventing any significant mental decline.

Eriksonian view
The psychologist Erik Erikson (as cited in Broderick & Blewitt, 2009) believed that those in middle age faced the challenge of generativity versus stagnation. Those who achieve generativity feel a sense of accomplishment in providing for their community as well as the next generation; they often have meaningful careers as well as children (although generativity can mean different things to different people). Those who do not achieve generativity may face stagnation, or dissatisfaction with one’s state of life and lack of productiveness. Therefore, Erikson might claim that a generative adult would be more likely to have good mental health.

Baltes’ (as cited in Broderick & Blewitt, 2009) view of middle adulthood meshes well with that of Erikson’s. Baltes argued that young adults contribute to the survival of the species by reproducing (or achieving intimacy, according to Erikson). Meanwhile, older adults contribute by teaching and guiding the younger generation, and their continued development is much more dependent on cultural support rather than natural, biological processes.

Marital satisfaction
Another indicator of mental health in adults might be satisfaction with their marriage, although this may be a relative measure. Researchers such as Vaillant and Vaillant (as cited in Broderick & Blewitt, 2009) have consistently found that marital satisfaction declines over time, especially in women. Possible explanations for this include disillusionment (in which the idealized vision of one’s spouse is at odds with reality), or an inability make amends after experiencing conflict. Couples that can address conflict head-on and repair frayed nerves are more likely to remain together, which undoubtedly helps both individuals maintain positive mental health.

Just as adults receive regular health check-ups to screen for things such as cancer, perhaps they should also place as much attention on their mental health. Adopting healthy habits, striving towards goals, and continuing to grow as a person in middle adulthood is most certainly critical to living a fulfilling life.

Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2009) The life span: Human development for helping professionals (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon.

Photo by Cindi Matthews