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Psychological perspectives on mental health

Despite ageing being inevitable, the development of mental health needs at any stage in the lifespan is not. However, myths remain that as a person ages, cognitive changes occur which negatively affect intelligence, creativity and memory.

While it cannot be argued that some changes take place within the brain as a person ages, it is wrong to assume that all older people will become forgetful and develop a dementia-related condition. Although there is some agreement on the biological changes occurring in ageing, there is little research-based agreement on the psychological dimensions, despite numerous research attempts. The difficulty with research studies is that, while attempting to provide a generalisable snapshot of the reality of mental health in later life, they cannot always reflect or provide answers to meeting individual needs. Adopting a person-centred and biographical approach to care can be crucial to planning services and meeting individual care needs. The major areas of psychological investigation and research include the decline of learning abilities, memory, personality changes and intelligence. All are considered to impact upon abilities in later life. The first distinct contribution of psychology to the study of ageing is credited to Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) who, among his other works, launched the first large-scale collection of empirical data across the lifespan. At this time, research into intelligence quotients (IQ) compared younger people with older people in laboratory conditions, and unsurprisingly these studies demonstrated a significant decline in ability in later life.

This theory proposed that from birth, the individual learns and grows until adulthood, after which there is a long stage of consolidation, followed by a stage of decline, culminating in death. We now know that laboratory tests involving quick responses actually test motor function, rather than IQ, and such work has declined in importance since the emergence of developmental psychology. Jung (1875–1961) was one of the first psychologists to define later life as having a purpose of its own. He described the first half of life as orientated to biological and social issues and the second half of life characterised by inner discovery. Jung identified this as a developmental process by which the person becomes more unique and better able to use inner resources to pursue personal aims.

Overall, within current gerontological theory, it is accepted that, as a person ages, personality does not change. Similarly, changes to both short-term and long-term memory are thought to occur with the natural ageing process, but it is thought that these changes do not necessarily impact upon the person’s life, and often those complaining of poor memory in later life also report poor memory ability in earlier years.

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