Chapter 10: The Older, The Better Skeptics be Damned

Skeptics be damned.

“And this one is my grandma and her current lover.”

Recently I read a newspaper article titled, “10 good Things about getting Cancer.” not surprisingly, the “good” things were of a spiritual variety, with a large dose of rationalization thrown in. It reminded me of the skepticism I’ve felt when people talk about the good things that come from bad. But my skepticism may have been misplaced. With this column, The Zoomer-philosophy reaches the 10th chapter, its  first anniversary. In honour of that milestone, I’d like to present you with some remarkably hard evidence that supports that most famous age-related wish of all: “We’re not getting older — we’re getting better.” Still skeptical? Here, to change your mind, is my list of

The top 10 good Things About getting old:

1. We’re happier.
Contrary to what you’ll hear from the doom-and-gloom prognosticators about the misery that is old Age, a recent gallup poll indicates that according to virtually every parameter of contentment devised, people get happier as they get older. The poll, which involved more than 340,000 respondents, found that at age 18 most people feel relatively good about themselves; but that a sharp decline in mood begins in their late 20s, and continues to slide during their 30s and 40s (the decades of career, marriage and child-rearing — all of which may or may not be successful) until the age of 50, which is a watershed. From 50 on, people start getting happier again until, by age 85, they’re actually more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18. This pattern more or less holds for stress, anger, sadness, worry and the capacity to enjoy life. The gender of those responding had no effect; nor did their marital status, employment status or the number of children they had, if any. Researchers, while “encouraged” by the survey, have been unable to account for its findings to date. Maybe they should consider the following:

2. We’re wiser.
Long considered the most tired cliché of old age, new studies show that, in fact, wisdom does develop with age. In an experiment involving 3,000 people, aged 60 to 100, professor Dilip Ieste of the University of California found through MRI scans that in the four regions of the brain that contribute to what we call wisdom — the amygdala and three separate sites in the prefrontal cortex — “older people demonstrate a higher level of activity between these regions than younger people.” A paradoxical factor in this increase is the fact that our brains slow down as we get older, which results in a decrease in impulsivity. “The elderly brain is less dopamine-dependent,” Ieste reported, “making [older] people less impulsive and controlled by emotion.” so, in a truly neat twist, our slowed-down brains turn out to be our ace in the hole. It’s not that younger decision-makers are too stub- born to slow down to consider their actions — it’s that they can’t.

3. We’re smarter and remember some things better.
As the September issue of Zoomer reported, “Researchers have found that older adults are 30 per cent more likely than their younger counterparts to remember picture-word pairings.” This finding is bolstered by a study done by psychologist Lars Larsen of Denmark’s Aarhus University, who tested U.S Vietnam veterans at various junctures in their lives and discovered that the so-called relentless decline in brainpower from early adulthood on is largely a myth. We may lose brain cells as we get older but mathematical skills stayrelatively stable into middle age up and verbal skills improve. Professor Larsen attributes this to practice: if you use it, you not only don’t lose it but you can improve it. It also seems we can also continue to learn as we age. In a finding she called “astonishing,” Dr. Lixia Yang of the Max Planck Institute for Human development in Germany discovered in a 2008 study that seniors were able to “retain 50 percent of concepts they learned almost a year ago.” Nola Ochs, who received a Bachelors degree from Fort Hays state University in Kansas in 2007 at the age of 95, wouldn’t find this surprising. nor would Ma Xiuxian, a 102-year-old Chinese grandmother who enrolled in grade 1 this past April.

4. We get along better with people.
Crotchety? difficult? stubborn? sure I’ve met a few; but overall? no. In 2010, Karen Fingerman, a professor of gerontology and family studies at Purdue University, published an article called It Takes Two to Tango: Why Older People Have the Best Relationships. “Older adults report better friendships, marriages, less conflict with their grown children, fewer demands and irritations with their grandchildren.” This “age effect” on strong emotional ties appears to be related to older adults’ ability to regulate their emotions, control their anger and be more forgiving of other older adults who may commit a social faux pas. or, it just might be that we get along better with people because:

5. We care less about what people think of us.
Fingerman’s studies also found that older adults “tend to let go of friendships or other ties that could be annoying.” Which is to say, as we age, we suffer fools less gladly and because we care less about what society thinks of us, we achieve more autonomy of thought and become more voluble in our opinions. This may be the source of the image of older people as “cranky,” “emotional” or “difficult.” But how about the adjectives “honest” and “blunt”?

6. We need less sleep.
For years, we’ve been hearing that older people sleep less because they have trouble sleeping. In fact, it appears we sleep less because we don’t need as much bedtime as younger people do. According to the Clinical Research Centre of the University of Surrey in England, older adults sleep about a half-hour less a night than middle-aged adults, who sleep a half-hour less than younger adults. But this involves no reduction in day-time alertness. In fact, assuming good health, older adults can also “expect to be less tired during the day compared to healthy young adults.” That means Zoomers who can’t sleep shouldn’t agonize; if you sleep just one hour less a night between the ages of 60 and 85, you’ll be adding more than a year of consciousness to your life. Use it!

7. We’re better at learning new languages.
This surprising inversion of conventional wisdom comes courtesy of Steve Kaufmann, a 71-year-old Montreal-raised founder of The linguist Institute. Kaufmann, a Canadian diplomat, started learning his ninth language (Russian) when he was 60 and his 10th (portuguese) when he was 62. His experience has instilled in him the firm belief that older adults “are better language learners than children. Kids are less inhibited, but adults know so much more – You don’t have to be exposed to another language as a child to be able to really learn it. It is more a matter of attitude and how you go about it.” so, what about that attitude?

8. We’re more optimistic and take more chances.
In an experiment that flew in the face of the “conservative old fart” stereotype, a group of Stanford University researchers in California had a group of 19- to 27-year-olds and a group of over-65-year-olds perform a gambling task involving the potential winning or losing of money. The experiment was designed to see how worried each group would be about losing money and how excited about winning it. Both groups ended up being equally excited about winning but the older group was markedly less negative over the prospect of taking a loss. one researcher reasoned this was due to an “adaptive process … helping to reduce individual bits of anxiety as [we] get older.” All of which bodes well for Zoomers at the poker table — or life. 

9. We enjoy sex more.
Much more, and more often than we used to. And, in one instance, even more than younger people. While people in their 20s report the highest level of satisfaction with their sex lives overall, the next highest level is reported by people in their 50s (the difference was tiny). A landmark Swedish study showed that in the 30-year period 1971 to 2001, sexual activity among seniors increased an average of 16 percent (from 52 percent of 70-year-old married men in 1971 to 68 per cent by 2001). In the same period, the number of older women reporting “high sexual satisfaction” increased, with more women reporting having orgasms during sex. Mind you, the proportion of men reporting low satisfaction also increased, possibly because it’s become more acceptable for men to admit “failure in sexual matters.” Which is, after all, a kind of improvement in itself.

10. We’re blessed by science and technology.
Our position as heirs to the 20th century’s unprecedented outburst of innovation and techno/scientific progress means that even when things are bad, they’re still better than they used to be. Ten million cataract surgeries a year are performed worldwide, the majority being quick outpatient procedures on older patients. Fifty years ago, those 10 million people would have been on their way to blindness. There are currently about a quarter of a billion people in the world with artificial joints, dental implants, heart valve replacements and pacemakers, the majority 60-plus. And millions, again, have benefited from some form of coronary bypass surgery. Fifty years ago, those patients would have been toothless, crippled, bedridden —or dead. Fifty years ago, a centenarian would most likely have spent his or her last days in bleak isolation. In July 2008, when Olive Riley died in Australia at 108 years old, she was the world’s oldest blogger. In her last year, she posted more than 70 entries and had people responding to her regularly from around the world. digital media had defeated the traditional scourge of elder isolation. It also permitted the Internet to perform its new social magic and reach out to a large community of people with a particular interest — in this case, Olive Riley. At what other time in history could an old person sit in her own room and touch the world?

The bottom line is that we’re in a time and culture where the so-called older generation, denigrated and insulted these last 60 years, is being lionized again. Just look at celebrities — with time on their side, they’re achieving a higher and longer-lasting level of fame than today’s younger people will ever attain. Peruse any list of the most famous or influential and count the number over 55. So quick is the pop culture shift today, so short its attention span, that very few contemporary “stars” have any chance of becoming lasting entities or enduring Icons. The Rolling stones will never lose their cool, nor Sophia Loren her allure. What’s the world to do? slow down, and try to catch up to us.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.