Decline in Frontal Lobe and Executive Function Helps Explain Senior Grumpiness

Decline in Frontal Lobe

“Grumpy old man” and “Grumpy old woman” are phrases we are all familiar with, and we have all seen expressions of this phenomenon. The image of the old man coming onto his lawn and shaking his fist at the newspaper boy who threw his paper under the porch (again) is easy to conjure up.

The embodiment of the grumpy old man is Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. Good old Walt doesn’t seem to like anyone—until he learns to love two young people enough to give his life for them.

The embodiment of the grumpy old man is Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino.

William von Hippel, of the University of Queensland, studied the minds of older people and found that gradual frontal lobe decline in the brain causes reduction in certain inhibitions. Maybe that is why we laugh at Betty White and her shocking comments. We recognize her. Surely we all know elderly people who have said shocking things as their brains began to decline. According to von Hippel, the “executive function” of the brain, which normally inhibits someone from saying socially inappropriate things, declines along with the frontal lobe. Therefore, one sees the uncensored expressions of grouchiness and ill-nature that the person would normally disguise.

Elderly people whose frontal lobes are declining also have a harder time fending off depression and avoiding ruminating on their problems because of the same frontal lobe/ executive function decline.

Frontal lobe decline in the brain causes reduction in certain inhibitions. Maybe that’s why we laugh at Betty White and her shocking statements. We recognize her.

One unfortunate result of this, von Hippel found, is that people with declining frontal lobe cognition tend to reveal racism. Von Hippel wondered whether this was due to the fact that older people are more prejudiced than younger people and give voice to the prejudices of their era. He did not conclude that it was necessarily so. What happens, he felt, is that underlying prejudicial thoughts, which are usually over-ridden with an executive decision to be more fair, are not as uncommon as we might hope.

This is doubly unfortunate because a plurality of health aides in the United States are African-Americans, who work with seniors with declining frontal lobes. Consequently, they endure racial abuse because of it. About 36% of home health aides were African American in 2014, a study by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. A study by researchers Berdes and Eckert showed that most health aides experience some form of racial abuse. Fortunately for the elderly they serve, most aides attributed their patients’ irascibility and racial insensitivity to forgivable old age issues. They attributed crankiness to their patients’ physical situations, confinement in an institution, and to being “old school” when it pertains to racial sensibilities.

Grumpy old men and women are often not fun to be around. They can talk incessantly at the dining table about inconsequential things that no one is interested in. There is an upside to frontal lobe decline, however. Despite their tendency to ruminate, brain decline makes seniors somewhat immune to negative experiences. Their brains simply shut off negative experiences and accentuate the positive, as the old saying goes.

This was demonstrated in an experiment by von Hippel. Von Hippel reported that in his research, an experimenter would tell older adults about some kind of relationship problems in which the experimenter was clearly at fault. As is normally the case with people suffering cognitive decline, the seniors were more likely to offer unflattering opinions about the experimenter’s role in his or her own problems. On the other hand, some seniors offered affectionate, sympathetic and forgiving words, because their declining brains were resilient to the negativity of the situation that the experimenter described.

What can you do to help a grumpy granny or grousing grandpa socialize in a more appropriate fashion while putting the lid on unwelcome candor that he or she might exhibit? Von Hippel advises that socializing should take place early in the day. Older adults’ brains function better in the morning. Aerobic exercise also helps delay frontal lobe atrophy. Don’t forget the cup of coffee or tea. Caffeine, von Hippel notes, helps with executive functioning of the brain. With these tips in mind, your beloved senior may just refrain from telling everyone off in an uncensored way.



Bureau of Labor Statistics Reports, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2013. Report 1050. August 2014. Available online at:

 Berdes, C., & Eckert J. M. (2001). Race relations and caregiving relationships: A qualitative examination of perspectives from residents and nurse’s aides in three nursing homes. Research on Aging, 23: 109-126.

Von Hippel, William. (2007). Aging, Executive Functioning, and Social Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(5): 240-244. Available online at: