We Really Are Wiser

By Bonnie Baker Cowan

The expression ‘older and wiser’ seems to have some scientific basis, so we can actually bask in our role as ‘know-all’ grandparents, maybe even as  know-all parents to those grown children who often seem to have their doubts about our wisdom.

The Berlin Wisdom Project, initiated by researcher Paul Baltes and designed to measure wisdom, found, after many years of testing several age groups with hypothetical questions, that those who scored highest were about 65. And this peak was not just a blip on the screen, but followed a long plateau of ‘wisdom’ beginning in middle age. So we actually have a long period of sustained wisdom to use and enjoy.

And, in a 2008 study conducted by the University of Alberta and Duke University, where MRIs were used to look inside the brains of younger and older participants, results concluded that  older brains were more likely to view images and concepts as less negative. Emotionally, we seem to deal with challenges more positively as we age. According to the 2008 findings, an older brain may take longer to assimilate new information but will use the information well. We’ve slowed down, we have mixed emotions and that may be an advantage in helping us avoid impulsive decisions.

Some of us call it intuition or gut instinct, but scientists realize it’s more than that. As we age, we have a greater ability to understand and remember broader themes. In other words, we can see ‘the big picture.’ We just get better at looking beyond obvious solutions. We recognize that there are more complex answers to the world’s questions. Our ability to make good judgments actually increases with age. We are also better judges of character than our younger counterparts.

Obviously, politicians agree with scientists. The American Constitution states that an American President must be at least 35 years old. In fact, the concept of wisdom in aging probably existed before these scientific discoveries about the brain, with elders in tribes being respected and revered for their wisdom and leadership.

Apparently, it’s more than an accumulation of experience that our brains get ‘wiser.’ It’s brain biology. Physically, our brains are part of a system of neural networks that essentially build and strengthen over the years. Key to these connections and our basic gray matter is the white matter protecting it, which is the myelin layer, a fatty coating on the nerve fibers. The myelin layer builds into middle age and peaks around 50 and may even continue to build into the 60s.

There is, however, a down side according to the results of these scientific studies. It seems that wisdom starts to decline at about age 75, which may account for those fading memories about what we had for lunch today.

There are lots of ways to keep the brain healthy of course and we’re constantly reminded of them. Mind games such as puzzles, crosswords, Sudoku, reading, taking courses all help. Exercise, meditation, even sex, all keep the brain healthy.

So, when our grandchildren ask for our advice, we can be assured that we actually have the capacity and wisdom to impart thoughtful and considered viewpoints.  Their parents, our grown children might even benefit from our wisdom—not that they would ever ask for advice, but it’s reassuring to know our opinions have value in case they do.