When you hear the term self-esteem, what comes to mind? If you’re anything like me, the awkward younger years are likely to pop into your head: the period in many people’s lives when personal insecurities are plentiful and self-esteem is a scarce commodity. But as it turns out, researchers have been seeking to understand how self-esteem changes in later life for some time now; and, with mixed results. Thus far, some studies have reported that self-esteem appears to be stable in later life while others have noted its decline in older adults.
To address this gap in the current knowledge about how self-esteem functions in later life, a team of self-esteem scholars took an in-depth look at self-esteem using an 18-year longitudinal archival dataset from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing. The dataset included survey data from over 1,000 older adults who were between 65 and 103 years of age at the beginning of the 18-year period.
Study findings from analyzing almost two decades of self-esteem data were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013 and revealed that self-esteem in older adults is, for the most part, relatively stable. However, self-esteem was found to significantly decline immediately prior to death. Chronological age was, notably, not as indicative of self-esteem decline as was time-to-death. With these findings, researchers now have more confidence that self-esteem is not something that aging adults need to worry about much.
With all this said, research has only scratched the surface with respect in fully understanding the underlying process and specific mechanisms at play with respect to the self-esteem and time-to-death association. Accordingly, more research should be undertaken. Once they have a better grasp of the variety of factors that impact self-esteem at the end of life, researchers and practitioners will eventually be able to provide evidence-based suggestions for older adults struggling with low self-esteem, as well as those individuals at risk for declining self-esteem in later life.
Wagner J, Gerstorf D, Hoppman C, et al. The nature and correlates of self-esteem trajectories in late life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013); 105: 139–153.