10 Ways We Get Smarter As We Age

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As we age, the brain‘s processing speed begins to slow, and memory may sometimes slip. But there are other ways that our mental powers grow as we get older. In the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, researchers report that older people (over 65) showed less variability in their cognitive performance across 100 days of testing than did younger people aged 20 to 31. The older adults’ greater consistency “is due to learned strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level, as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood,” notes one of the scientists, Florian Schmiedek of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. A colleague of Schmiedek’s, Axel Börsch-Supan, adds that his research shows that older workers are more productive and reliable, and less likely to make serious errors, than are their younger colleagues.

Other researchers have made equally surprising discoveries about what’s really happening in our heads as we age:  “We are identifying ways in which older minds hold their own against younger ones and even surpass them,” says Margaret Gatz, PhD, professor of psychology, gerontology, and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. Here, ten such ways:

1. Your hemispheres sync up.

The brain is divided into two hemispheres, with each side specializing in different operations. Brain scans show that while young people often use only one side for a specific task, middle-aged and older adults are more likely to activate both hemispheres at once—a pattern known as bilateralization. By involving both sides, older people bring the full spectrum of the brain’s power to bear, allowing them to make more fruitful connections among the disparate parts of a problem or situation.

2. Your brain never stops growing.

Scientists once believed that some of our brain cells died off when we got older. But it’s now clear that we not only hang on to our neurons—we grow new ones, too. Throughout a person’s lifetime, the brain is continually reshaping itself in response to what it learns. Even something as silly as a clown trick can alter its structure: In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, German researcher Janina Boyke and her colleagues taught 60-year-old adults how to juggle. Afterward, scans of the subjects’ brains showed growth in a gray-matter region that processes complex visual information. In another experiment, Swiss neuroscientist Lutz Jäncke studied people who were learning to play a musical instrument. After they had been practicing for five months, Jäncke noted significant changes in the regions of the brain that control hearing, memory, and hand movements, even in participants who were 65 or older.

3. Your reasoning and problem-solving skills get sharper.

This is evident not only in laboratory studies but also in examinations of choices made in real life. For example, according to a study prepared for the Brookings Institute by Sumit Agarwal, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the middle-aged make smarter money decisions than their younger counterparts. In particular, they are better at financial transactions like managing their credit card balance and avoiding excess interest rate and fee payments—with the best performance notched by those in their early 50s.

4. You can focus on the upside.

Our outlook grows rosier as we get older, as demonstrated by a study published last year in the journal Psychology and Aging. Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, asked a group of subjects ages 18 to 94 to record their emotional states at five randomly chosen times each day for a one-week period. She repeated the procedure with the same participants five years later, and then again five years after that. With the passage of time, the study subjects reported more positive well-being and greater emotional stability. That may have been partly due to changes in how the brain—in particular, the emotion-processing center known as the amydgala—responds to positive and negative events. In a 2004 study, Carstensen scanned the brains of younger and older volunteers as they looked at cheerful, distressing, and neutral photographs. The amygdalae of younger subjects (ages 18 to 29) were activated equally by both the cheerful and distressing images, while the brains of the older subjects (between 70 and 90 years old) reacted much more strongly to the positive pictures.

5. Your people skills are constantly improving.

Mature adults understand themselves well—and they also understand other people, research shows. In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology in 2007, older and younger adults were presented with a series of hypothetical everyday problems (say, for example, an emotionally needy relative calls to talk just as you’re leaving to meet up with friends, or you’ve won a free vacation, but the travel dates would mean missing a long-planned family party). The older adults were especially good at solving such interpersonal dilemmas—often by choosing a path that skirted direct conflict. “As we get older, our social intelligence keeps expanding,” explains Gatz. “We get better at sizing up people, at understanding how relationships work—and at not getting into an argument unless we mean to.”

6. Your priorities become clearer.

“Studies of the way adults perceive time suggest that we become increasingly aware that our years on this Earth are limited,” notes Michael Marsiske, PhD, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida and an expert on aging. “This awareness helps explain the choices that older adults tend to make: to spend time with a smaller, tighter circle of friends and family, to pay more attention to good news than to bad news, and to seek out positive encounters and avoid negative ones.”

 7. You’re always adding to your knowledge and abilities.

There are some kinds of information we learn and never forget. Take vocabulary: Studies show that we keep adding new words to our repertoire as we age, giving us ever richer and more subtle ways to express ourselves. Job-related knowledge also continues to accumulate, meaning we keep getting better and better at what we do.

8. You can see the big picture.

As we age, we’re better able to take the measure of a situation. An experiment published in the journal Neuron in 2005 provided a very literal demonstration of this ability: Psychologist Allison Sekuler, PhD, of McMaster University in Canada, presented younger and older subjects with computer screens showing moving images of varying shapes and shades. When the shapes were small and gray, younger people were able to point them out more quickly. But when they were large and high contrast, older individuals performed the task faster. Sekuler notes that young brains seem to be better at focusing on details to the exclusion of their surroundings, and more mature brains are able to take in the whole scene.

 9. You gain control of your emotions.

While young people ride a roller coaster of happiness and sadness, excitement and disappointment, older adults are able to maintain a more even keel. In a study published in 2009, psychologist Vasiliki Orgeta, PhD, evaluated younger and older adults and concluded that older adults (between ages 61 and 81) had more clarity about their feelings, made better use of strategies to regulate their emotions, and had a higher degree of control over their emotional impulses.

 10. You become an instant expert, even in new situations.

As the brain encounters new experiences, it develops schemas—mental frameworks that allow us to recognize and respond to similar circumstances when we come upon them again. By midlife we’ve accumulated a stockpile of schemas that help give us our bearings even in novel situations. We just know what to do—and this sense of effortless mastery flows from the reservoir of experience we’ve built up over time. In fact, we have a name for this ability to draw on deep knowledge of the past while accommodating what comes up in the present: It’s called wisdom.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.

7 comments
ShamsAci
ShamsAci

CREATIVE LIVING AWARENESS WELFARE (CLAW):

 It is pessimistic to think about old age that one becomes dull brained at his or her later ages beyond 65 because it has been observed that an optimistic and active fellow who continues working dynamically lives healthier, happier and lengthier than his or her counterpart, that is, the one who is basically pessimistic, inactive and less hopeful about living and letting live becomes sick in early ages and hence he or she lives unhealthy, unhappy and a short-span life.

Most renowned scientists, poets, philosophers, politicians, specialists (in any field) rulers and their likewise personalities excelled in their later ages superseding many younger ones, examples of which are there many.

Therefore, a dynamically active person having optimistic approach towards life and living keeps on superseding his or her counterpart, the pessimistic and inactive one. Hence the more the former one grows older, the more active, dependable, trustworthy and multiples of their likewise qualities grow in him or her along with his or her aging. 

 

eetom
eetom

I am more than 75% of a century old.

I have more free time now but less time left to be free.

I am now saving to enhance the livelihood of doctors and nurses.

I didn't know that they are so many kinds of diseases and that the human bodies can change in so many ways.  Change for the worse, I mean.

I always have the feeling that I have forgotten something.  But I cannot remember what is it that I have forgotten. 

Things disappear like magic and reappear like magic.  Can inanimate objects move by themselves?

The force of gravity seems to be getting stronger.  Otherwise why should things keep on dropping from my grasp?

Why do buses and trains go in the wrong direction so often?  They were not like that years ago.

Why was it that when I greeted people whom I thought I knew , they just stared at me in surprise?

I have a lot of things to write about but I am just exhausted.  So I will stop.

PapaFoote
PapaFoote like.author.displayName 1 Like

FYI - Me, the Old Mountain Goat in his 82nd year, and 6 years since my stroke that seemed to "wash" most of the "details" from my "brain" so I could not "understand" to "read", etc., I started to "reclaim", like "steps", until I began to "understand" that having the "stroke" had actually allowed "me" to "understand better than before my stroke" - what do "You" think about "That"!

Obbop
Obbop

Nearing six decades of life I become increasingly disgruntled as I learn of the royal scam going on within a USA in the throes of class warfare.


The elites and their monolithic corporations have usurped what the Founders created and basically own and operate the federal government.


A day of reckoning is inevitable.

What will be the spark that ignites Revolutionary War 2?

nullhogarth
nullhogarth

@Obbop Clearly your advanced years have done nothing to advance your intelligence.

Champagne
Champagne

I thoroughly enjoyed the observations and input from all the academicians in this article. Good journalism Annie Murphy Paul, thank you.