This Week in the Elder Blogosphere
15 January 2006
Follow Up: Say Something Nice Project

Proven: Older IS Wiser – and Smarter

[EDITORIAL NOTE: The time window for entries in the "Say Something Nice" exercise has closed, and what a lot of email poured in. I am collating the comments and will send them out by individual email to everyone by sometime tomorrow morning. I hope all of you who participated enjoyed this as much as I have.]


“In midlife,” says UCLA neurologist George Bartzokis, “you’re beginning to maximize the ability to use the entirety of the information in your brain on an every-day, ongoing, second-to-second basis. Biologically, that’s what wisdom is.” [T]

Both the major newsweeklies published science stories last week on age and human brain, and they are crammed with the latest facts and research on how older brains work. Bottom line? Old brains work better than young brains which would shock old Sigmund who said, “About the age of 50, the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.” Not so, Mr. Freud.

Although the Newsweek story relies more on anecdotal information, both its writer and the Time story do good jobs in synthesizing and explaining the research. There is little I can add, so I’m going to quote a lot of it because I want it here on TGB for our future reference to refute general ageist attitudes and age discriminatory employers who think we are past our prime. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Both stories are linked in the preceding paragraph, although they go behind a paid firewall at some point. I’ll use a bracketed [T] for Time and [N] for Newsweek so you know where the information originated and save me those tedious, interruptive citations.]

Let’s start with the physical stuff – the brain itself:

“The most important difference between older brains and younger brains is also the easiest to overlook: older brains have learned more than younger ones. Throughout life, our brains encode thoughts and memories by forming new connections among neurons. The neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, but they become ever more richly intertwined.” [N]

“Far from slowly powering down, the brain as it ages begins bringing new cognitive systems on line and cross-indexing existing ones in ways it never did before….you manage information and parse meanings that were entirely beyond you when you were younger.” [T]

“It’s not just the wiring that charges up the brain as we age, it’s the way different regions start pulling together to make the whole organ work better than the sum of its parts…As we age, however, the walls between the [left and right] hemispheres seem to fall, with the two halves working increasingly in tandem. Neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza (great name for a man in his line of work - RB) of Duke University dubs that the HAROLD (hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults) model, and judging by his work, the phenomenon is a powerful one.” [T]

Now let’s move on to how these physical changes affect our minds and behavior. A researcher in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has been regularly testing 123 women beginning when they were 21 in 1958:

”On the whole, they found, the women’s highest scores in inductive reasoning occurred from their 40s to their early 60s. Similarly, their…(ability to highlight the better aspects one’s personality and restrain the less attractive ones) and…[the ability to evaluate various contradictory ideas and remain objective) did not peak until their 50s or 60s. There was also an increased tolerance for ambiguity and improved ability to manage relationships.” [T]

“As our aging brains grow wiser and more flexible, they also tend toward greater equanimity…An editor I know at a New York publishing company…in his 60s, and contemplating retirement, when he realized that he had finally matured into his job. Despite a sharp intellect and a passion for excellence, this man had spent much of his career alienating people with brusque, critical comments and a lack of sensitivity. Now, he told me over lunch, he was finally beginning to master interpersonal communication…he morphed from a brilliant but brittle loner into a mentor and a mediator of conflicts.” [N]

Take that, you ageist employers who fire and refuse to hire anyone older that 50.

"It's that talent for reflective thinking that explains the role older adults have always played in the human culture. It's not for nothing that history's firebrands and ideologues are typically young, while it's judges and peacemakers and great theologians tend to be older." [T]

The Newsweek story focuses on refuting the myth of the midlife crisis and the writer, Gene Cohen, who is a physician and researcher, says that what some perceive as a crisis is, in reality, “the start of a thrilling new phase of my life.”

“…I realized that our view of human development in the second half of life was badly outmoded. We tend to think of aging in purely negative terms, and even experts define ‘successful’ aging as the effective management of decay and decline. Rubbish.” [N]

Just what I’ve been saying here for two years, and because that’s what impresses people, I like having my observations supported by folks with letters behind their names. All this throws a big, fat monkey-wrench into every age-discriminatory practice in the land.

But none of this means elders can sit back and rest on our brainy behinds. As with our bodies, it’s a “use it or lose it” proposition and Dr. Cohen repeats what we all know, but don’t always practice:

  • Exercise physically
  • Exercise mentally
  • Pick challenging leisure activities
  • Establish strong social networks

That all this research has made it out of lab and into mainstream media means attitudes will begin to change, but it must be regularly repeated over time to make a dent in the ageism and age discrimination that is so powerfully entrenched in American culture.

Nevetheless, this is a start, and young people who dread getting older can now rejoice in knowing that science has finally proved what elders have always known about ourselves: like fine, old wine - we get better with time. Just nobody else, even the great thinkers like Freud, ever believed it before.


*written while grinning* Those of us who are facing ages 70+, 80+, and 90+ take small comfort in a study that defines elderhood as being ages 50+ or 60+. Thanks for the summary of the articles in the popular magazines, Ronni.

Let's give these researchers a break, Cop Car. They've only recently begun researching older brains. The women in that impressive, longitudinal study that began when they were 21 in 1958, are only 67 or 68 now. The study is ongoing.

And "reaching a peak" in one's sixties doesn't mean abilities suddenly regress any more than, for example, an athlete suddenly can't run at all anymore after reaching his/her physical peak.

Until very recently, beliefs - even scientific ones - that old people only decline were so entrenched hardly any research was done with us.

It is crucial, too, that the results of studies be widely reported in popular magazines where everyone can read them and begin to rethink ageist attitudes.

I'm grateful there are more people taking the study of how older bodies and brains work seriously. More results will be forthcoming over time.

I experienced the increased tolerance for ambiguity. It allows me to be both a carmudgeon and a mentor/mediator.

I note that the experiment was with female brains, whom I believe have always used both hemispheres of the brain rather well. Wonder what the study would show when you toss in a few male brains?

I read something (was it at TGB? Gail Sheehy?) explaining how with age and the lessening of the predominant sex hormones, both men and women experience a personality change - men develop better emotional connections, and women become more self assertive. Would partly explain the phenomenon of the brain halves tandem workings.

My 51 year-old brain is simultaneously digesting today's TGB wisdom, pondering the human brain convergences, and playing an old tune by "America" (the band)in the mental background:

"Well, I keep on thinkin’ ’bout you, sister golden hair surprise
And I just can’t live without you; can’t you see it in my eyes?
I been one poor correspondent, and I been too, too hard to find
But it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind

Will you meet me in the middle, will you meet me in the air?
Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you care?"

Doesn't mean I like algebra any better, though.

Anyone who has taken the time to evaluate the evidence around them shouldn't be surprised at this information. But it's nice to see that someone took the trouble to study it scientifically and codify it for the fools who won't believe their own eyes.

What is more interesting though, is how this study has outlined the way human society is supposed to work: the young shake things up with new ideas while the elders seek ways to integrate the new with the old and keep society from veering off into extremes.

By over- or under-valuing a segment of society, we not only cheat ourselves, but we endanger ourselves as well.

Thanks for keeping us posted. I like reading encouraging stuff about getting older!

Seems to me elders have been consulted regading major decisions for centuries. Only in recent history has their counsel been ignored. By the same generations that are now learning it has value.
Good post. I love I'm getting smarter.

Mr. kenju's experience in his 50's was he could not be hired due to the amount of $$ he would require (being commensurate with his experience), not due to any perceived mental decline.

Ronni, are you sending the comments out to people in thier blog comments - or in email?

(not sure what happened there!)

(continued from the above)....
people in their blog comments or in email?

Oh, thanks, Pattie - now that song will be in my head all day... good thing it's one of my favorites, being a "sister golden-haired surprise" myself....

The "Say Somethng Nice" comments will be emailed to each person tomorrow, Tuesday. There are a whole lot more than I had expected so it's taking awhile to collate, organize and pull the emails together.

I'm not posting them in comments because, I think, they should be private unless you choose to make yours public.

Thanks for the info, Ronnie. It gave me a new perspective to ponder. Dee

Ronni, great writing... how appropriate on the day when MLK said "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." The dream has not yet been realized. The dream is still real.

Perhaps new research will eventually change society's view of the over 50 population. Before the advent of rapidly changing technology, the wisdom of elders was vital to all crafts and professions. In today's world the young do not rely on the knowledge of older generations. Now we see the over 50 men and women isolated in retirement communities, and care facilities, reducing the interaction between children, young adults, and mature adults.

Interesting point Kaye about how technology has added to this generational rift. Ironically, I did see a piece on CBS News this past weekend featuring a company called Posit Science, which is developing computer-based programs for helping people stay sharp as they age. Did anyone else see it? From what I saw, their research on brain plasticity in mature populations IS changing the way people view the 50 and over crowd and left me thinking that technology could be the key, and not the obstacle, to keeping people independent, engaged, and social. Maybe these computer programs could be part of the answer to overcoming these generational rifts as well. Try the link below if you missed it.

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