If we’re to believe the results that come up with a Google search, the phenomenon of becoming a cantankerous old fart as you age is exclusively a male problem (you’ll notice there is no female equivalent of the 1993 Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon classic, Grumpy Old Men). Amongst these search results, there are only two articles that suggests grumpy old women even exist, and one of those only addresses it in parentheses.
Scientifically speaking, there’s a good reason for this: According to the bulk of these articles, the cause of all this grumpiness is testosterone. “Testosterone is a hormone that grows muscles, reduces fat in the body, affects energy and improves sexual desire,” Ridwan Shabsigh, head of the International Society of Men’s Health and a urologist in New York City, told NBC News in 2012. “However, it also has neural-psycho effects. And in some men we encounter in our practice, those effects can be mostly visible: Low mood and irritability.”
According to the same article, the issue of male grumpiness is so pervasive that it’s used as a description of a man’s mood in screening questions for identifying low testosterone. “One form many U.S. male patients are asked to fill out is a test for Androgen Deficiency in Aging Men. Androgen is the family of hormones that controls the development of masculine traits. Question №6 on that form reads: ‘Are you sad and/or grumpy?’” reported NBC News.
We’ve also reported on the issue of lowered testosterone in men here at MEL, and how it affects their irritability. “A decrease in testosterone happens naturally as a man ages,” Joshua Gonzalez, a urologist and sexual health doctor who specializes in hormones and the effects of aging explained to us last month when we investigated the idea of Male PMS.
As we noted back then, this change has been referred to as “Irritable Male Syndrome,” which — according to researcher Jed Diamond, who has a whole site dedicated to it — is a way of summing up the irritability and anger that was observed and studied in male rams when their testosterone was lowered. “I learned about it from research going on in Scotland by Gerald Lincoln, who coined the term,” says Diamond. “They were originally trying to find a male contraceptive, hence the attempts to stop conception by lowering testosterone.”
Diamond points to statistics on suicide amongst men and women at varying ages as further evidence for why men, more so than women, become dissatisfied with life as they get older. “The rate increases for both men and women in the middle years, but decreases for women as they get older, where the male suicide rate stays high,” explains Diamond. “One of the reasons seems to be that men are lonelier and have fewer social contacts as we age, where women keep friendships longer and make new ones later in life.”
This, too, is a topic we’ve touched on before, and the problems men face in maintaining friendships into adulthood has made one thing very clear: Due to this difficulty, men place too high a burden on their families — specifically their wives — for emotional support.
Carolyn Aldwin, director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University, cites the fact that while women develop better interpersonal skills as they age, the same can’t be said for men. “Men tend to rely primarily on their wives for emotional support so they don’t develop the same level of intimacy with their friends,” explains Aldwin. “They talk about things relating to sports and work.” Fortunately, Aldwin thinks that as gender softens, men will continue to develop closer relationships with their friends as they get older.
Another reason Aldwin suggests men are more likely to become more irritable as they age has to do with an increasing number of physical impairments. “A lot of older men have auditory problems,” says Aldwin. “They tend to lose their hearing which can make them seem irritable because they talk louder, and they may get irritated when they can’t understand the people around them.” As you might expect, Aldwin suggests that this particular impairment can lead to social isolation, which makes men seem grumpier even though they’re probably just lonely.
But it’s not all bad news for the AARP demographic. According to research from Buffalo University and Northwestern University, getting older — male or female — makes you more trustworthy, which actually increases your level of happiness. “Trust may benefit well-being because a sense of trust in other people allows us to derive support, comfort and pleasure from our social relationships,” Claudia Haase, a professor of social policy at Northwestern and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement reported by CNN in 2015. “People who trust more are also happier. Moreover, our study shows that people who trust more are not only happier today, but they also experience increases in happiness over time.”
Aldwin agrees and adds that for most people, satisfaction actually increases with age. “Life satisfaction is actually highest later in life,” she says. “After the age of 50.”
In that case, there’s really nothing to be angry about at all.