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I was recently asked the questions below about male friendships, particularly older male friendships.  I am always hesitant to put people into categories, though I know that is how we are wired. We classify things to simplify our lives. But things don’t fit into neat boxes. There are generally more differences within groups than between groups. When you classify, you get a good idea of the outliers but you miss the rich textures of the variability within groups. There was one thing I forgot to mention when I responded. (A thunderstorm came up so I hit send on the email and shut down quickly, and the person asking the questions was on a deadline, so I had to get them in yesterday.) As we get older, we use both frontal lobes when making decisions rather than one, and we tend to get better at picking our battles. Deciding what is worth arguing about can go a long way in saving any friendship.

 1.  Life, work and family can demand a lot of a man’s time. How important is it for men to maintain a social network?

We are social beings. Friends give us support and comfort when we are hurting, celebrate with us when things go well, and teach us how to get along in the world. They give us someone to talk to and to listen to and accept us for who we are, and can help us get better – and we give the same in return. There are many studies on the benefits of friendships for mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. There are studies that show the increased health problems of all types for those who are isolated and lonely – depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke, increased stress levels, decreased memory and learning, antisocial behavior, memory loss, etc.

2.  Are there any distinct benefits for men regarding maintaining healthy friendships that should serve as an inspiration or reason for men to put more effort into their friendships?

Typically those with healthy friendships cope better with stress. They have lower levels of heart problems and immune system problems. I got an article in a newsletter today about how social supports mitigate some of the effects of ageism. Women may cope better than men, despite feeling more of the effects of ageism, because they have stronger social supports.  His is a synopsis of the article:

A new report examining attitudes towards ageing in Canada has been published. Revera Inc. and the International Federation on Ageing set out to examine the gender differences in ageing and experiences of ageism in the report titled “Revera Report on Ageism: A Look at Gender Differences.” Researchers surveyed male and females aged 66 and older. According to the findings, Canadian women are more optimistic about the ageing process compared to their male counterparts. Six in 10 women aged 60 years and older reported feeling optimistic about getting older whereas 5 in 10 men reporting feeling positive about the process. Compared to males, females were also more likely to agree with the statement “age is just a number” (47 percent for females, 33 percent for males). The report also examined Canadian older adult experiences of ageism. Interestingly, results revealed that women reported feeling they were treated differently because of their age. Women reported more often feeling ignored or invisible compared to men (46 percent for females, 32 percent for males) and that others have assumed they were incompetent (32 percent for females, 18 percent for males). Researchers suggested that the recorded findings might be connected to differences in social supports. The stronger social connections forged by females may help buffer against the damaging effect of exposure to ageism.

 AUTHOR: Misty Harris

SOURCE:, July 3rd 2013

3. Why do you think men often have trouble bonding with other men or creating close friendships/relationships?

There are a lot of reasons why any person can have difficulty creating friendships.  We learn from those who raise us, usually family, and from the culture we grow up in.  If the culture and/or family says that men are strong, don’t show emotion, are totally independent, must be competitive and win at all costs and trust no one – that doesn’t make for great relationships.  In addition to culture and familial gender roles, the number of variables that affect relationships is almost endless – the attachment style you learn as an infant, whether you trust that people will be there for you, your sense of self including self efficacy, how you define a friendship and what you look for, personal characteristics (like attractiveness, wealth, social status, substance use, communication styles, personality traits, etc.) whether you are more introverted or more extroverted.  I don’t mean shy by that. An introverted person can make friends, they just need more time alone to recharge their energy, while the extrovert may feel very uncomfortable alone for periods of time and get energy from the crowd.  Birth order can have an effect on whom you bond with, as well as your parents’ birth order. There is also the comfort level of friendships with persons of your own gender or with persons of the opposite sex and whatever complications that might arise from either.  There is also the effect of wanting things to stay the same. Friends will support positive change, and realize that at times friendships end or at least change. The need to win, to be one up in the hierarchy, can be very damaging. You may know people who lost friendships when they disagreed with a friend over a political issue (for example the Affordable Health Care Act has had some heated debate) or who lost a friend over religious differences. I think one reason men (or women for that matter) may have trouble bonding with their own gender is getting past the pecking order contest that sometimes ensues.  That can especially happen with the stereotypical male friends of not being able to just be together but to have to be doing something together. That can be great when they help each other get better at whatever it is, but when one decides he has to be the best and win, that leaves the other losing. That is not an act of friendship.  One thing I have noticed in working with fathers is that they sometimes worry about being respected. I remember one dad in particular telling me about the relationship with his son and his worry about not being respected. I asked about the relationship and found that they did things together like fishing and playing ball, they talked to each other pretty easily – the dad was teaching the kid discipline in a nice and gentle way. Turns out dad was worried because his dad taught him by beating him and he thought that was necessary for respect. Somewhere in all that for him fear and respect became synonymous when they are not. We all have unfinished stories, and until we get some kind of completion, we keep repeating them. I think one of the reasons men may have trouble with male relationships is that the first relationship they had with a man was a poor one. For some folks high school never ends and they continually repeat the types of relationships they had as adolescents both in friendships and the work place. Unresolved sexuality issues can have an effect. I sometimes work with gay people and transgender people and lack of acceptance and trust issues they face again affects relationships with others.  There are also issues of proximity. People move a fair amount these days. There are lots of ways to communicate online and by phone, and you can reconnect with people you haven’t seen in a long time. But there may not be the emotional intimacy and honesty that you have in a face to face relationship.

4. How would you encourage a man to branch out and meet new friends, OR how would you encourage a man to improve or build on existing friendships?

Each of us has our own story. I just try to work with the person in front of me and see what can help them to get to where they want to be.  The first friendship I encourage him to look at is the friendship with him self. How do you treat yourself as a friend?  How do you respect yourself as a friend?  What qualities do you look for in a healthy friendship? Do you have these qualities in your self?  In your friendships with others, is the relationship with the other person voluntary, mutual, equal and reciprocal, is there trust so that one can be vulnerable with emotions and still be accepted? Can a person leave the friendship if/when the time arises? Is there mutual respect and what does that mean to you? I would help the person decide which of those two choices in the question he wants to do.  He may even want to try to do both of those to some degree. We would look for whatever works for him, and be flexible and adaptable. And I would encourage him to work on his friendship with himself, for that is the only life long relationship he will have.

We might also look at how do disagree in a respectful way in a conversation. One factor in maintaining memory and cognitive function is to challenge your beliefs – to think critically. It is possible to have good healthy relationships with those who believe differently. That is one way to grow in this life. Part of that is looking at self talk as well. I think to have a good relationship with others, you need to have a good one with your self. And realize that it is always a work in progress.

A few months ago I read The Myth of Alzheimer’s, by  Peter Whitehouse, MD and Daniel George, M.SC. Dr. Whitehouse gives two scenarios of meeting with a new patient who is worried about having Alzheimer’s. In the first, the physician orders many many tests then later meets with the patient to discuss the results.  The results indicate that the individual is in the early stages of dementia, and the physician recommends medication and paints a bleak future.  The second scenario is the same except fewer tests are ordered and a much different treatment is suggested. Medication may help, but there are things you can do.  Some examples are older people reading stories to youngsters and young people talking with elders getting their stories. Whitehouse was the physician in the scenarios at two different times in his career. His thinking about brain aging has changed over the years in a dramatic way.

Whitehouse reviews how the label of Alzheimer’s came to be in the diagnostic classification work of Emil Kraepelin and the professional politics involved.  Even Alois Alzheimer, who worked with Kraepelin,  was not sure he had found a specific entity.  All our brains age and do so in different ways and at different rates. Some are outliers and have little deterioration and some have a great deal. Exercise and life long learning can help maintain brain function.  Having a sense of purpose is also a factor in maintaining brain function. The popular notion that Alzheimer’s can only be truly diagnosed at autopsy is also a myth. We all develop plaques and tangles in our brains over time.  Remember from The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain how Sister Bernadette and the master chess player both  had plaques and tangles at autopsy that indicated advanced dementia, but neither had shown indicators of dementia before death.

Listen to an interview with Dr. Whitehouse.  You can learn more about his ideas at The Myth of Alzheimer’s.

Interview, part 1:

Interview, part 2:

Worried that you are getting more forgetful as you get older and that your brain is losing its edge?  The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle Aged Mind, by Barbara Strauch can answer your questions about how your brain ages and how you can keep your mind in shape.

Ms. Strauch is a health and science editor at the New York Times and author of a prior book about the teen-aged brain. She pursued work on the middle age brain in part to answer questions about changes she noticed in her memory as she entered middle age. She did this by reviewing clinical studies and talking to those who performed the studies.

First of all, older people today outperform those of the same age from years ago. A study at USC compared cognitive scores of people today aged 74 to scores of 74 year olds taken 16 years ago. The current group of 74 year olds scored more like the 59 year olds of 16 years ago.

Younger brains process faster, but older brains can and do outperform younger ones. Older pilots in flight simulators initially took longer to catch on to a specific test, but once they did, they consistently outperformed the younger pilots on the test. Experience counts. For any skill it takes on average about 10 years to get really good at what you do so that you can control situations rather than situations control you.

Our brains are not static. We add neurons and increase neuronal connections over the years. Our brains remain plastic, and we can continue to learn. Social expertise increase with age, and we tend to focus more on positive things. We see more shades of gray emotionally which mitigates impulsive acts.  There is an increased willingness to look at different perspectives. There are increased levels of sympathy and compassion for others, less self-centeredness and more wisdom. The older brain is more bilateral using both hemispheres for tasks that a younger brain would use only one. Older brains tend to be less focused which may make memory retrieval more difficult. Steven Johnson in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, discusses the phenomena of neurons firing alternately in phase lock and chaos in the brain. In children, brains spending more time in chaos actually added IQ points. The chaos part seems to act like background dreaming in which new creative connections are sought out. It would be interesting to see if this is the case in older adults as well.

Brains make remarkable allowances for damage as well. Ms. Strauch told the stories of Sister Bernadette, who died at 85 of a heart attack, and the Chess Player, a professor who had a similar story. On autopsy, both had all the tangles and plaque of advanced Alzheimer’s disease, but neither had shown signs of the disease while alive. The Chess Player did express concern that he could only think four moves ahead rather than his usual seven before he did, but that was about it.  Why would this be so? There are several factors that play a part in maintaining and continuing to build brain function.

First, education matters. The more mentally challenging and complex the job, the lesser the chance of dementia. Be a life long learner. And tutoring and teaching others helps as well.

Second, exercise matters. A crucial part of memory takes place in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Aerobic exercise builds this part of the brain like nothing else. You build brain and cognitive reserve with aerobic exercise. Toning and stretching exercises do not seem to have the same effect.

What we eat – dark colored fruits and vegetables in particular – and how much – low calorie is better – make a difference as well.

There are other factors as well, including moods and social engagement. Check out the book and exercise your mind. You can always learn new things.

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