Do negative life events make us ‘wiser’ in old age? Aging Ment Health. Jan.2014

28.01.2014

The theory of gerotranscendence by Tornstam  postulates about the developmental shift from the material and self-centred perspective to  a more cosmic and transcendent state, i.e. gerotranscendence, that is gained through ageing. ‘Life review’ and the gaining of a more mature perspective on one’s life, wisdom, and acceptance of one’s death are key forces shaping this shift. It has three dimensions, Cosmic (sense of unity with the universe), Self (decreased self-centeredness and a decline in material interests) and Social (declining interest in superfluous social contacts and an increase in time spent in meditation). crisis in life (for example loosing partners) can promote this shift.Studies suggest that women score higher in gerotranscendence.

Do negative life events in general have a large effect on the development of gerotranscendence?   

Sanna Readab, Arjan W. Braamcd, Tiina-Mari Lyyraa & Dorly J.H. Deegd investigated this question as part of the  Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam  where data have been collected at three year intervals from early 1990s. Data from 1569 participants contributed to this analysis.Cosmic transcendence was measured by a 6-item scale based on Tornstam’s (1994) scale. Negative life events ( 11 listed events) were studied by asking whether the respondent has experienced the event during the past three years.

Results:

Higher age, religious affiliation, depressive symptoms, and previous negative life events were associated with a higher initial level of cosmic transcendence. Older people who had experienced a higher number of negative life events showed an increase in the cosmic dimension of transcendence, whereas older people who had experienced no negative life events at all showed decreased cosmic transcendence over time. When age and aging is taken into account, negative life events continue to have an association with cosmic transcendence, and it appears that  the association exists regardless of age.Men and women seemed to show convergence in the experience of gerotranscendence over the follow-up.

Limitations: Three years may not be a good enough period to investigate these changes. Only negative events were studied, other significant events could have contributed/ mediated/ altered the perspectives.Only one dimension of gerotranscendence was studied.

Conclusions: Findings support many of the ideas in the theory of gerotranscendence. The data suggest that, within a short time frame, negative life events have the potential to enhance cosmic transcendence and that this process may be independent of age and gender.

Summary of the article:

Do negative life events promote gerotranscendence in the second half of life?

Read S, Braam AW, Lyyra TM, Deeg DJ. Aging Ment Health. 2014 Jan;18(1):117-24.

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