New Directions in Aging Research

Investigations into the role of individual differences in behavior, or personality, in the aged are largely the result of a paradigm shift away from old age as an independent category of life, to a focus on old age as part of a lifelong developmental continuum. Diener and Suh (1997) showed that, although there is an unavoidable, universal physical decline and loss of function with increasing age, an individual's personal sense of feeling "happy and well''

can increase concurrently with physiological decline or disability. Specifically, two recently proposed theoretical views of aging, Selection, Optimization, and Compensation Theory (SOC) and Socio-emotional Selectivity Theory (SST), are redirecting social aging research by considering growth and decline as a process that impacts all age categories. In SOC, Baltes and Baltes (1998) use the interaction of three universal regulatory processes to define adaptive development, or successful aging: an individual's selection from available options, optimal use and acquisition of resources, and ability to compensate to adjust for physical or resource loss. In this view, by setting goals and working toward them through appropriate resource use and compensation for loss, an individual's sense of positive well-being can be maintained throughout both adulthood and old age. Lockenhoff and Carstensen (2004), in describing SST, add that the knowledge a successful individual has of coming toward the end of life and of having limited time may serve as a motivator in their determination to achieve well-being and emotional meaning in old age. Both researchers agree that a theoretical shift toward life history thinking and a focus on individual differences in goals and preferences should guide future aging research.

Currently, comparative, transcultural studies of human aging are being conducted that offer a global perspective on human aging and reveal ''a wondrous array of social responses to the physical imperatives of growing old'' (Sokolovsky, 1997). Sokolovsky (1997) describes this growing, multidisciplinary trend as ''qualitative gerontology,'' and being comprised of investigations from widely divergent fields (anthropology, biology, psychology, demography, medicine, etc.). Also, as the information age continues to globalize access to resources, those that focus specifically on aging are helping to unify research designs, including cross-discipline collaborations, new professional organizations, journals, other print resources, web-linked sites, academic gerontology programs, and so on. In addition to the described qualitative movement, there is also an important effort being made by investigators to achieve consistency in research methods used in quantitative cross-cultural studies of human aging. Such consistency of methods is imperative if we are to maximize the usefulness of these comparative studies and tease out the meaningful differences, similarities, individual variations, and even universals of human aging within a variety of social contexts.

In an example of an inclusive aging research design, considering both biology and behavior, the investigation of the molecular biology of social behavior is another emerging field that is certain to contribute a great deal to our understanding of aging. This area of interest looks at neural, molecular, and endocrine mechanisms that influence behavior in social species. Additionally, new programs of advanced study in the area of interface between biology, ecology, and behavior are rapidly being established in American universities. These programs will address cross-species behaviors such as predation, violence, addictions, and so forth from both biological and behavioral perspectives. Such a focus requires an interdisciplinary approach that will cut across the traditional structure of university departments.

Finally, a new and unique opportunity to extend the use of nonhuman primates as a model for behavioral aging is provided by the recent establishment of sanctuaries designed to accommodate retired chimpanzees (Pan troglydytes). In 2000, the CHIMP Act (Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act) was signed into law and implemented the chimpanzee sanctuary system in the United States. The first of these, Chimp Haven, Inc. in Shreveport, Louisiana, is now receiving chimpanzees, many of which are aged. Each of these individual animals has given its life to biomedical research, the entertainment industry, or has lived as a pet. Now, instead of being euthanised or languishing away singly caged in a lab for years, more than 600 individuals will have a permanent home where they will live out their lives in an enriched, social environment appropriate for chimpanzees. Such sanctuaries, in addition to paying an ethical debt to our phylogenetically closest relatives, provide a unique opportunity for behavioral studies of all kinds, including investigations of individual personality and its impact on aging. Additionally, use of personality assessment in nonhuman primates, already shown to be a helpful management tool in chimpanzees (Dutton et al., 1996), gorillas (Gold and Maple, 1994), and rhesus monkeys (Capitanio and Widaman, 2005), should prove to be an excellent management tool to guide chimpanzee caretakers in easing an individual's adjustment into the sanctuary, and also in the formation of successful social groups. Since nonhuman primate traits, particularly those of the chimpanzee, evolutionarily underlie human traits, a greater understanding of individual behavioral differences among them, particularly with regard to social behavior and aging, cannot help but inform our own experience of being old. We look forward to the coming new wave of aging research and to all the benefits it will provide.

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