Mind Matters - July 2006
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Set in Our Ways?
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- July 2006

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      Many of my older adult friends think that as we age we get more set in our ways. I think it is a myth. I think people can make changes in their attitudes, how they think, and how they act, if they want to, no matter what their age. Is a person's personality inherited and fixed or can people change their personality? What is a personality disorder? Signed: Optimistic Personality.

    Dear Optimistic:

      Thank you for writing! You have asked three very complex questions. I would say that you are, indeed, optimistic. There are whole books written on the subject of "personality." The short answers are (1) research shows that older adults are not set in their ways, (2) people can change significant aspects of their personality, and, (3) personality disorders are a category of conditions that were defined by the authors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition ("DSM-IV"). Since the subject of personality disorders is very complex and more than a little controversial, I will write about it in a future column.

      For those who think that old age means they can't learn new things, they may need to think again. Research shows that older adults can, and do, learn new things. In fact, a study done in 1999 shows that in spite of mild brain changes in older adults, they could perform as well as young adults on visual, short-term memory tests. They found that older adults used different areas of the brain than younger adults for the same memory tests. Their conclusion? Older brains are very resilient and creative in finding new pathways to process information that bypass parts of the brain that may have declined. Since 1999, many studies have confirmed the resiliency and plasticity of the brain, in spite of age-related changes.

      Generally, the idea that older adults are more set in their ways than younger adults can be categorized as an ageist prejudice. Research shows that older adults, of which a large percentage are no longer employed, have the time and resources to "experiment" with new adventures and pastimes much more than most younger adults, and they do just that.

      When it comes to our personalities, do we change over time or become more of the same? I have a few professional colleagues who think that this is true. In fact, one of the definitions of personality is "a collection of emotional, thought and behavioral patterns unique to a person that is consistent over time." Hmmm… "consistent over time" obviously implies "more of the same" as we age.

      The word "personality" has many different definitions and there are so many different personality tests that research on "personality" is problematic. However, recent research looking at personality change over 40 years of adulthood showed that there was no evidence to support the idea that personality change is most pronounced before age 30 and then reaches a plateau. In other words, that research debunked the myth that we become more set in our personality ("ways) as time goes by.

      A very famous 2005 study debunked the widespread belief that personality disorders are a stable phenomenon and don't change over time. It clearly showed that change in personality happens, and undergoes dynamic development from childhood onward, and cannot be said to be fixed.

      Two recent important studies showed how older adult beliefs about aging had profound impacts on physical abilities and memory tests. In other words, if you believe that becoming frail is part of aging, you will get frail faster than the person who does not believe that. Similarly, older adults exposed to words like "cranky," "feeble," and "senile," before being tested had a more difficult time with memory tests. When they were exposed to words such as "accomplished," "dignified," and "knowledgeable," they did much better.

      When it comes to healthier aging, it is significantly "attitude, attitude, attitude." I hope this helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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      Have a great day!

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