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Physical and Cognitive Development in Young Adulthood



Guidepost 1: In what physical condition is the typical young adult, and what factors affect health and well-being?

  • The typical young adult is in good condition; physical and sensory abilities are usually excellent.
  • Accidents are the leading cause of death in young adulthood, followed by cancer, heart disease, suicide, AIDS, and homicide.
  • The mapping of the human genome is enabling the discovery of genetic bases for certain disorders.
  • Lifestyle factors such as diet, obesity, exercise, smoking, and substance use or abuse can affect health and survival.
  • Good health is related to higher income and education. In addition, African Americans and some other minorities tend to be less healthy than other Americans, in part due to lower quality health care.
  • Women tend to live longer than men, in part for biological reasons, but perhaps also because they are more health-conscious.
  • Social relationships, especially marriage, tend to be associated with physical and mental health.

Guidepost 2: What are some sexual and reproductive issues at this time of life?

  • Premenstrual syndrome, sexually transmitted diseases, and infertility can be concerns during young adulthood.
  • While some STDs have become less prevalent, others are on the rise.
  • The AIDS epidemic is coming under control in the United States, but heterosexual transmission has increased, particularly among minority women. Worldwide, AIDS is the fourth leading cause of death.
  • The most common cause of infertility in men is a low sperm count; the most common cause in women is blockage of the fallopian tubes.
  • Infertile couples now have several options for assisted reproduction, but these techniques may involve thorny ethical and practical issues. Fertility clinics are expensive and have low success rates, and there is heightened risk of birth defects and low birthweight.



Guidepost 3: What is distinctive about adult thought and intelligence?

  • Some investigators propose a distinctively adult stage of cognition beyond formal operations, called postformal thought. It is generally applied in social situations and involves intuition and emotion as well as logic. Criteria include ability to shift between reasoning and practical considerations; awareness that problems can have multiple causes and solutions; pragmatism in choosing solutions; and awareness of inherent conflict.
  • Schaie proposed seven stages of age-related cognitive development: acquisitive (childhood and adolescence), achieving (young adulthood), responsible and executive (middle adulthood), and reorganizational, reintegrative, and legacy-creating (late adulthood). This model suggests a need to develop intelligence tests that have ecological validity for adults.
  • According to Sternberg's triarchic theory of intelligence, the experiential and contextual elements become particularly important during adulthood. Tests that measure tacit knowledge are useful complements to traditional intelligence tests.
  • Emotional intelligence may play an important part in life success. However, emotional intelligence as a distinct construct is controversial and hard to measure.

Guidepost 4: How do moral reasoning and faith develop?

  • According to Lawrence Kohlberg, moral development in adulthood depends primarily on experience, though it cannot exceed the limits set by cognitive development. Experience may be interpreted differently in various cultural contexts.
  • Kohlberg, shortly before his death, proposed a seventh stage of moral development, which involves seeing moral issues from a cosmic perspective. This is similar to the highest stage of faith proposed by James Fowler.
  • Carol Gilligan initially proposed that women have an ethic of care, whereas Kohlberg's theory emphasizes justice. However, later research, including her own, has not supported a distinction between men's and women's moral outlook.

Guidepost 5: How do higher education and work affect cognitive development?

  • Depending on their major field, college students often show specific kinds of improvement in reasoning abilities.
  • According to Perry, college students' thinking tends to progress from rigidity to flexibility to freely chosen commitments.
  • Research has found a relationship between substantive complexity of work and cognitive growth. Also, people who do more complex work tend to engage in more intellectually demanding leisure activities.
  • The workplace poses special challenges for adults who lack college education.
  • Although more women than men now are going to college, they tend to choose different major fields. Still, an increasing number of women are pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated fields and are moving into managerial and professional positions.

Guidepost 6: How can continuing education help adults meet workplace demands?

  • Workplace education can help adults develop basic job skills, which many lack.
  • Adults with low literacy skills are at a severe disadvantage in a modern economy. The average American's literacy level is mediocre as compared with other high-income countries, and there are greater disparities between those with high and low literacy levels. In developing countries, illiteracy is more common among women than among men.

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