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The Truth About Grumpy Old Men (and Women)

Who you calling irritable? How to know if a bad mood is bad for your health, or just par for the course

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Reach a certain age, and it’s almost expected that if you’re not, say, the sweet old granny happily baking strudel, you’re more than likely to become the cranky, cane-waving curmudgeon. No wonder the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men is getting retooled for a new generation, this time starring Eddie Murphy.

But the assumption that a grumpier outlook accompanies wrinkles and gray hair is simply wrong. “Older people tend to be happier than the general population,” says Heidi White, M.D., a professor of medicine in the geriatrics division of Duke University School of Medicine. “So why do we have that stereotype? Because we’re an ageist society and we misunderstand older adults.”

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Empirically, older people are no more likely to be irritable or unpleasant than anyone else. If anything, research shows that overall, they tend to be relatively content and patient. Among other factors, a phenomenon known as the Positivity Effect sets in, where we tend to remember the good over the bad.

For many, lifestyle shifts also can favor a slight mellowing in attitude. Being able to retire means you no longer have to spar with a demanding boss or chase around a brood of unruly children. Instead, you can drop in on the grandchildren at your leisure or take off for a spontaneous weekend getaway without telling anyone.

If a well-oiled retirement can remove certain mood-hampering stress, old age can, of course, present its own kind. And certain temperaments may struggle more than others with age-related challenges.

Consider a typical dinner out. On the plus side, you may now have more time to dine at a new restaurant in town. But once you arrive, you’re reminded of just how noisy many new places are — making it difficult to hear conversation if your hearing is compromised. Dim lighting can make it hard to read a menu. A busy server may get impatient if you have trouble hearing the specials. Narrow walkways pose trip hazards if you’re navigating past tables and chairs with a cane or walker. Anyone could feel cranky by the time the dessert menu rolls around. “The irritable old man is really about the lack of accommodation that we make for older adults,” White notes.

It’s also possible that you’re not more grumpy, just more vocal. Certain natural changes that occur as we age, like impulse control, can make you more sharp-tongued than before, and more likely to say what is on your mind, for good or bad.

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David Rosenberg, 75, noticed his personality starting to change about five years ago, soon after he retired. He stopped wanting to please people so much, and stopped holding back when someone said or did something that bothered him. “You get to a point where you say, ‘I don’t need to put up with this anymore,’ ” says Rosenberg, who lives in Boca Raton, Fla., with his wife, Marsha Dubrow, 69. “I have my wife, I have my friends, I don’t need to do it.”

Dubrow noticed the change, too, and sees it as a positive one overall, allowing them to focus on what they want to as a couple. “He has changed, but he was a patient person,” Dubrow said. “I was never a patient person, so I haven’t changed very much. I’m as impatient as always.”

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But if moodiness isn’t always an ailment, it can be a symptom. In general, experts say, when an older person becomes moodier than he used to be, there may be a good reason — and those close to him should pay attention.

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"We have to look at irritability as a sign of something else going on,” says Mark R. Nathanson, geriatric psychiatrist at Columbia University. The root cause, experts say, could potentially be one of the following:

Dementia: Research has linked mood changes with early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and some symptoms of dementia overlap with common signs of depression, like apathy, social withdrawal and isolation.

Hormonal changes: We’re all well aware that falling estrogen levels during menopause can make a woman feel irritable, sad and anxious. But a gradual decline in testosterone levels in men, known as andropause, is being researched as a possible linked to depression. Also as we age, our dopamine levels decline, too, making us vulnerable to dopamine-deficient depression.

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Chronic pain: Pain, particularly chronic pain, can make a person irritable. Dealing with pain saps your energy, leaving little room for niceties and patience. It can also interfere with sleep. “Pain makes people irritable and it fatigues people quickly,” White says.

Loneliness: Social isolation and loneliness is a national epidemic, affecting a third of older adults. If you have no one to talk to, and no one to visit, depression can creep in. Spend little time with other people, and you lose the social skills that keep you engaged with the world. Loneliness can be a vicious cycle. Feel down and you don’t want to see anyone. But if you don’t see anyone, you only feel worse and become more irritable.

So what to do if you’re the one who feels like a grumpy old man (or woman)? While you can’t change the reality of age-related hardships such as the deaths of friends and loved ones, there are concrete ways to step back, take a deep breath and regain control over your outlook and mood.

Learn to adapt: Aging often means handling an onslaught of changes, many of which you may not want to accept. But pound your stake in the ground and refuse to budge and you may find that the world moves on without you. People who can adapt to a changing environment fare better. “Adaptability is one of the best traits you can have as an older adult,” says White of the Duke University School of Medicine. “Life is about changing and as we get older, we have to adapt to hearing loss, we have to adapt to chronic pain.” The quicker you adapt, the better you will fare.

Shut up and listen: When you get together with other people, listen to what they have to say, and ask questions. Don’t talk about your arthritis or how noisy all the restaurants are. Instead, use the opportunity to learn something new and get out of your head. Talk to people who disagree with you and ask their opinions. “One of the most powerful things you can do to cure loneliness is to get out in the world, ask other people questions and shut up about your body,” says John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and the author of Brain Rules for Aging Well

Find a support network: Loneliness is a dangerous thing. Focus your energy on building or strengthening your support network. Join a spiritual or political organization or cause. Call a friend for lunch. Join a support group for people who share a common issue. Take an exercise class. Take a class at a local college or learning center where you can learn a new skill and meet new people.

Go dancing! Exercise and movement are great for your mental and physical health. But dancing has the added benefit of forcing you to interact directly and physically with another person. “It is a ritualized forced social interaction,” Medina says. “One of the most frightening things about aging is people stop touching you.” Get on the dance floor, and you have a way to break through that and connect with another person.

Talk to a professional: If you still cannot shake your sadness or grumpiness, contact your health care provider. Your moodiness may be a symptom of an underlying health problem. “Someone could present with irritability and it could be a medical emergency, like they have a bad infection or pneumonia,” says Nathanson of Columbia University. If you are suffering from depression, seek help from a therapist, as depression is a treatable disease and you should not have to suffer alone.

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