Gender and Aging: What Do We Know?

by John Davy on December 13, 2010

While it is often commented that women as a rule live longer than men, comparatively little else has been empirically demonstrated about the differences between older men and women. Despite the questionable scientific rigor behind many popular accounts of gender and sex, the role of sexual biology in physical aging, and of gender as a social organizing principle across the human lifespan, make sex and gender differences significant in the lives of older individuals.

A review article in Gerontology draws attention to the conceptual and empirical problems that impede understanding of gender and aging. The authors argue that as individuals advance in age, the relationships between multiple social and biological factors grow increasingly complex, making it harder to explain gender differences with “models of linear cause and effect chains” (ibid). Thus, the authors advocate for a comprehensive bio-psycho-social model of aging (BPS) that incorporates biological sex, social gender roles, and other factors that shape individual human development. Through this model, they review the current state of research on sex and gender differences in aging.

The authors address “four preconceptions” underlying work on aging and gender. First, they amend the popular understanding of the labels sex and gender as separate domains that respectively address biological and social differences. In truth, the biological and sociocultural aspects of sex and gender cannot be neatly separated. This is not to say that all cultural differences can be reduced to biological differences or that all biological differences result from social conventions; instead, the biological and the social interact reciprocally.

Second, the authors call attention to the contributions of developmental psychology in pointing out that “old age” can’t be treated as a distinct phase but a term that can be applied to multiple developmental processes that take place throughout the life course.

Third, the authors point to the need to incorporate questions of gender within “active aging” approaches that focus on beneficial aspects of aging and, the authors state, are consistent with a BPS approach. BPS models of aging show that active aging is not reducible to measures of well-being or quality of life. From a BPS model, the notion of active aging evidences the interaction between the biological, psychological, and social, as studies show that individuals who take an active aging approach receive cognitive, social, and physiological benefits. The authors point to how the social organization of gender leads to very different ideals of active aging for men and for women, pointing to the need to apply considerations of gender to active aging.

The fourth preconception addressed is demographic change. As mentioned above, one of the only widely attended aspects of gender and aging is the differences in life expectancies between women and men. At the same time, the authors point to the shrinking of this gap and to how it has been overlooked that while women tend to live longer, there is research to suggest that men in general experience a greater number of years in subjectively judged good health.

The authors invoke these preconceptions to address research on physiological sex differences, psychology, and psychopathology. Much of the limited research on physiological sex differences in older adults has been equivocal and conflicting. Given that sex differences are overlapping and gradual even in domains observable in the younger adult population, such differences not replicable in older adults is logically unsurprising if not contradictory of “common-sense” views of sex and gender.

The interaction of brain and behavior makes it even more difficult to parse out sex-based differences from other social influences, such as men’s greater tendency to smoke and engage in aggressive and risky behavior, or women’s disproportionate labor in uncompensated domestic work and caregiving. There are general average differences in male and female brains in terms of size and proportion of grey-to-white matter, but findings on the cognitive and behavioral correlates of this are conflicting and equivocal, and there is still a relative lack of consistent findings on the influence of aging on the physiology of the brain. Results on memory performance in aging adults have been mixed, with some studies showing better performance among women than men, some showing the inverse. Also non-generalizable have been findings of “differences between males and females in language-related cortical regions” as individual physiological compensation and brain plasticity make it difficult to interpret functional differences in brain architecture across the lifespan.

There is minimal empirical data on hormone change and the aging brain. Further, as controversies over post-menopausal hormone replacement theory suggest, findings on the role of hormones in aging have been mixed, leading to conflicting ideas of “best practices.” Further, in fMRI studies, the “older adult” sample is typically significantly younger than how the term is used by gerontologists.

Psychological findings on aging and gender have also been mixed. The authors note a lack of longitudinal studies of gender difference, as well as the mass of confounding social and physiological variables that make such work difficult to execute. Gender-based differences in earlier-life education, role differences, “lifestyle habits” not only confound analysis but undergo profound change during individual lives. Any differences in cognitive styles across aging men and women are similarly difficult to establish. As the authors note, the likelihood that individuals “do not solve cognitive tasks or run through daily routines in the same way in every stage of our lives can easily be observed in the normal course of life but is hard to demonstrate in empirical findings.”

The authors address the similarly inconsistent findings on aging, gender, and intelligence, but, as they note, measures of intelligence do “not predict stable effects on the behavioral level.” Consistent with “active aging” hypotheses, the authors do not state that older adults seem more adept at everyday problem solving, as older adults across genders have been found to “combine emotion regulation strategies and instrumental approaches more efficiently” than younger individuals.

How does a review that points out the conflicting and equivocal nature of findings of gender differences help advance understanding of this issue? The authors do so in many ways. As their review incorporates multiple disciplines that have approached some of the same questions, the authors are able to point out confounding variables addressed by different schools of research, which offers the possibility to improve the conceptual validity across sciences.

Gender differences may be impossible to reduce to common-sense stereotypes, but they have research and clinical significance. For instance, the authors reexamine gender differences in the prevalence of psychiatric disorders, one of the few domains other than sexual anatomy where, at least within younger cohorts, sex differences have been stable and consistent across studies—to take a more famous example, the differences in age of onset of schizophrenia between women and men. Here, the significance of the lack of understanding of the role of aging and gender is a direct impediment to medical and social research. The authors also refer to studies that have pointed to gender differences in the benefit gained by participating in certain activities like volunteering and high culture. Rather than applying either a purely deconstructionist approach or an overly simplistic one that lends cliché a scientific veneer, the authors advance a more rigorous and elaborate scientific framework that is useful for critical work on gender, “pure” research, and clinical research.

Article reviewed:
Kryspin-Exner, E, Lamplmayr, E and Felnhofer, A (2011). “Geropsychology: The Gender Gap in Human Aging – A Mini-Review” Gerontology, e-pub ahead of print. PMID: 21124020

Other citations:
Crowe M, Andel R, Pederson NL, Johansson B, Gatz M (2003). Does participation in leisure activities lead to reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease? A prospective study of Swedish Twins. Journal of Gerontology Series B 58:249-255.

Wallintin M (2009). Putative sex differences in verbal abilities and language cortex: a critical review. Brain and Language 108: 175-183.

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